Ambassador crisscrosses U.S. in bid for Eurasian pipeline

HOUSTON -- A major new Eurasian natural gas pipeline project in the works may require political leadership from the United States to see it to completion, a prominent ambassador is arguing as he tours the country to drum up support for the cause.

E.U. leaders fret over the continent's dependence on Russia for most of the gas that heats and powers homes. Russia's dominance in the sector is fueling the push to introduce shale gas extraction technologies in certain countries. Energy policy leaders are also considering other ways to diversify Europe's gas supply, through either increasing imports from northern Africa or the possibility of introducing imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Canada and the United States.

Meanwhile, the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan say they are committed to building the Trans Anatolian natural gas pipeline project, or TANAP.

The proposed project would carry gas over 1,000 miles from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz 2 natural gas field and other Caspian Sea region hydrocarbon production centers through Georgia and Turkey to connect with Europe's gas processing and distribution system.

Proponents estimate the system would cost about $7 billion to build, but Turkey and Azerbaijan are expected to cover the entire costs of construction. The TANAP system would be operated jointly by the state-owned Petroleum Pipeline Corp. of Turkey, Turkish Petroleum Corp. and State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan (SOCAR).

But Azerbaijan's representative in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Elin Suleymanov, frets that interest among European politicians and the public is minimal. Europe would have to agree to an interconnection between TANAP and its systems for the project to proceed.

To build momentum, Suleymanov says, he is touring the United States and holding a series of events in the hopes of getting the government involved in winning European leaders over on the idea.

"The only way, from the Arctic sea to the Indian Ocean, where you could get eastern Eurasia energy resources to Western Europe without passing either through Russia or Iran is the Republic of Azerbaijan," he said during a talk with the energy industry press here last week. "That's quite significant by itself, and that's what we've been trying to facilitate."


At a recent stop in Houston, sister city to the Azeri capital Baku, Suleymanov explained how a recently christened oil pipeline from his country to Europe was made possible largely due to a robust campaign for support during the Clinton administration.

President Clinton's efforts to persuade Europe to welcome that project were the decisive factor in getting it built, he said, and he is confident that a similar campaign led by top U.S. leadership can help TANAP to become a reality.

"Today I think there is a dire need for American leadership on this issue as well," Suleymanov said. "We hope that increasingly that will be something that people will understand."

Security matters

Suleymanov argues that the United States should press the European Union on the project as a matter of international security.

International relations observers argue that Russian control of European gas supplies may cause policymakers there to make concessions to Russia even in opposition to U.S. policy priorities. And building new energy supply routes that avoid the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf could lessen the shock to global energy markets that would come should a conflict between the United States and Iran erupt there.

A nascent website promoting TANAP says the pipeline, once built, will "create a tremendous impression to the world energy marketplace."

Suleymanov also downplayed concerns over security in Turkey, where TANAP would carry Azeri gas close to past conflict zones involving a Kurdish separatist movement.

On Oct. 1, gas exports from Iran were halted after an explosion at a pipeline in eastern Turkey near the Iranian border occurred in the early morning. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has repeatedly attacked pipelines in Turkey in the past.

Suleymanov pointed out that the security situation in Turkey has improved dramatically in recent years alongside a sharp decline in PKK activity. And TANAP would be built in the north and away from the heart of the separatist activity, he said in expressing his confidence that Turkey can keep TANAP safely operating once it is completed.

The growing popularity of gas as an alternative to coal should also boost TANAP's prospects, he said.

"Today the major competition on energy markets in the U.S. is about the gas, natural gas, and obviously we all want to have it," Suleymanov said. "Basically what we're looking at is an interim fuel, and that interim fuel is gas. It's much cleaner than oil, and it's still more economical than any form of alternative energy."

Suleymanov and other officials promoted TANAP before an audience of about 60 members of Congress at a recent event in April that was sponsored by SOCAR, Chevron Corp. and other energy companies. Suleymanov said he will continue to urge U.S. leaders to be more proactive in pressing for European approval of the TANAP project.

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