After years of empty chatter, disappointing setback, and potential alternatives, it appears there may be some on-the-ground movement for the frustrating Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Earlier this week, Ashgabat announced that come December, the much-derided pipeline would finally see its groundbreaking. The Berdymukhamedov administration remained so confident on the date that Baymurat Hojamuhamedov, Turkmenistan’s Deputy Prime Minister for Oil and Gas and Special Envoy of Turkmenistan’s president, invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the ceremony.
However, the date for the groundbreaking wasn’t the only news spurring the pipeline. This week, the consortium backing TAPI selected Turkmengaz to head the pipeline’s enactment. As Eurasianet noted, “The statement notes that Turkmengaz has more than 50 years [of] experience in the development and transportation of gas resources, as well as in the construction of pipelines.”
A countdown to groundbreaking. A hydrocarbon major finally selected. At long last – and just as India began floating signs of abandoning the project altogether – the pipeline finally looks ready to take off. Right?
Well, not so much. While selecting both a date and consortium leader were prerequisites for seeing the pipeline to fruition, the manner in which they were selected, to say nothing of who was selected, all point to signs that the pipeline stalling before construction even gets underway.
Look at the selection of Turkmengaz, for instance. For months, foreign majors had been bandied as potential consortium leaders. While Exxon and Chevron had fallen from their positions as favorites, all signs pointed to either France’s Total or Malaysia’s Petronas as potential consortium heads. Indeed, the lone roadblock to the pipeline’s construction, aside from safety concerns in Afghanistan, remained Turkmenistan’s (lack of) willingness to allow a foreign company on its soil.
But instead of selecting one of the proven foreign majors available, Turkmenistan went with a domestic option. And while there’s nothing necessarily lacking in the selection of a domestic company, Turkmengaz doesn’t provide near the breadth of experience, quality, and faith Total or Petronas could have brought. The countries can break ground whenever they like, but without a Total- or Petronas-type company behind the pipeline, any momentum is all but nullified.
It’s tough to see the decision as anything other than the latest in a string of disappointments. As Luca Anceschi, a Central Asian Studies lecturer with the University of Glasgow, wrote on Twitter, “[This] seals [Berdymukhamedov’s] failure in opening up economy. This was his very last chance.” While there may be a small-scale expansion into Kyrgyzstan’s energy market, Turkmenistan’s decision to give in to economic xenophobia and opt for a domestic player saps any good news the selection may have brought with it. TAPI remains, as ever, just beyond the reach of reality.