Auditor: Turkmen gas field is world's 2nd largest

By Peter Leonard

The isolated former Soviet nation of Turkmenistan is likely sitting on top of the world's second-largest gas field, British energy auditor Gaffney, Cline & Associates said Wednesday.

Peter Holding, the company's senior manager for Russia and the Caspian region, told an energy conference at a seaside resort in Turkmenistan that the vast South Yolotan field covers an area of about 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) - bigger than the country of Luxembourg.

"The South Yolotan field is so big that it can sustain several developments in parallel," Holding said. "We now need to concentrate on producing and delivering results."

Under a previous estimate made by the company, the field was believed to hold up to 14 trillion cubic meters of gas. Turkmen officials have repeatedly stated the top tier may be closer to 21 trillion cubic meters. That would put South Yolotan second in size only to the South Pars field, shared between Iran and Qatar.

Holding said his firm will issue fuller details on the latest survey of the field next month.

Although foreign investors are eagerly eyeing the prospect of developing the reserves, the Turkmen government has so far resisted such overtures. In late 2009, the government itself began industrial exploration of South Yolotan and signed deals worth a total of $9.7 billion with companies from South Korea, China and the United Arab Emirates to do the work.

Much of the funding for that operation has come from China, which has pledged loans worth $8.1 billion to Turkmenistan to develop South Yolotan.

Turkmenistan began delivering gas to China through a newly built pipeline in late 2009. That route is expected to reach full capacity of 40 billion cubic meters a year in 2015, although Beijing has sought guarantees that Turkmenistan will eventually deliver up to 60 billion cubic meters.

Russia also buys gas from Turkmenistan, but Moscow's demand has flagged over the past two years. Plans to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan along neighboring Kazakhstan's Caspian coast up to Russia have fallen by the wayside.

The sheer size of South Yolotan will bolster Turkmen hopes to increase supplies to existing clients in Russia, China and Iran, as well as sell to prospective buyers in Western Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Turkmen officials say total gas production is expected to reach 230 billion cubic meters per year by 2030.

Industry insiders have questioned, however, whether Turkmenistan will be able to successfully pull off such a large-scale operation without the direct involvement of experienced foreign investors.

The field, which is located near the border with Afghanistan and some 350 kilometers southeast of the capital, Ashgabat, was discovered at the end of 2006, shortly before the death of the country's eccentric longtime President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Current President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has repeatedly stressed his goal to increase the number of export routes out of Turkmenistan - a policy eagerly supported by Western suitors.

The European Union is hoping to claim a share in Turkmen gas on the planned $12 billion Nabucco pipeline, also supported by the United States, which would run 3,300 kilometers from to Turkey through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and end in Austria, circumventing Russia.


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