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Does Turkmenistan Have Globe's Greatest Gas Reserves?

Myrat Archayev

Myrat Archayev

head of Turkmenistan's state energy company, Turkmengas

"The total natural gas reserves of Turkmenistan are estimated at 50 trillion cubic meters."

Unclear proof to support claim

On May 24, Myrat Archayev, the head of the state company Turkmengaz, told an international gas congress at the Caspian resort town of Awaza that Turkmenistan’s estimated gas reserves were some 50 trillion cubic meters.

Turkmenistan undoubtedly has huge reserves of natural gas. But there is no publicly accessible documentation to support Myrat Archayev’s claim his country has 50 trillion cubic meters of gas. If that was true, it would mean Turkmenistan would have the largest gas reserves in the world, surpassing Qatar, Iran, and Russia.

Reports citing Archayev’s comments refer to the results of audits conducted by the British firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates (GCA) that show the reserves of three of Turkmenistan’s largest fields – Galkynysh, Yashlar, and Garakel – are estimated to total some 27.4 trillion cubic meters.

The figure of 27.4 trillion cubic meters represents the most optimistic appraisal of the three Turkmen gas fields.

On October 11, 2011, GCA business development manager James Gillet announced the findings of the audit, saying the high estimate for Galkynysh was 21.2 trillion cubic meters. The low estimate for that field was 13.1 trillion cubic meters and the “best estimate” was 16.4 trillion cubic meters.

Similarly, GCA assessed at 1.45 trillion cubic meters on the low estimate and 5 trillion cubic meters on the high estimate for the Yashlar and Minara.

The Garakel field was recently reopened and it is unclear how Turkmen officials determined it contained reserves of 1.2 trillion cubic meters although in keeping with the examples of Galkynysh and Yashlar, this likely represents the high estimate.

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016 assessed Turkmenistan’s recoverable reserves at 17.5 trillion cubic meters, the fourth largest reserves in the world behind Iran - 34 trillion cubic meters -, Russia - 32.3 trillion cubic meters -, and Qatar - 24.5 trillion cubic meters.

Turkmenistan still has few export routes to sell its gas and currently has only one customer – China. Russia’s Gazprom announced at the start of 2016 that it would no longer purchase Turkmen gas and a dispute over pricing and debt led to Turkmenistan suspending supplies of gas to Iran at the beginning of 2017.

Archayev told Reuters on May 31 that Turkmenistan was looking to increase gas exports to China to some 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2017 from 35 bcm in 2016. However, this figure is in dispute as other sources put Turkmenistan’s gas exports to China in 2016 at some 30 bcm.

Turkmenistan’s gas export agreements are generally so opaque that there is always room for doubt.

This is true as well of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Turkmen officials continue to report progress building the Turkmen section of the pipeline though to date there has not been visual evidence – photographs, videos – to show that there has been any construction at all.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has confidently predicted TAPI’s completion by 2019 though Turkmenistan has found it difficult to attract foreign capital to invest in the project, mainly because some 750 kilometers of TAPI would run through eastern and southern Afghanistan, restive regions where security would be nearly impossible to guarantee.

Turkmenistan continues to find new onshore sites and then there are offshore gas and oil fields in Turkmenistan’s sector of the Caspian Sea. However, Archayev’s figure likely represents the optimal amount of gas Turkmenistan possesses and the recoverable amount is probably significantly less.

Turkmen authorities often speak of the country as being at the crossroads of the Eurasian continent, strategically located to fill the gas needs of Europe, China, or the South Asia [Pakistan and India]. While this is true, linking to any of those markets requires construction of pipelines that would stretch more than 1,000 kilometers and all of those markets have ports where they receive liquefied natural gas brought by tanker. The truth is that Turkmen natural gas is not as attractive now as it once was, but if Turkmen authorities can make people believe the country has 50 trillion cubic meters of gas that alone should elicit more interest from foreign investors.