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05/12/2006 | EU, Kazakhstan: The Geopolitics of Energy Cooperation

Stratfor Staff

EU and Kazakhstani representatives agreed Dec. 4 to EU-funded feasibility studies of new infrastructure projects to bring Kazakhstani energy to Europe. Changes in politics and economics are driving the warming relationship.

 

European Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso emerged from meetings Dec. 4 with Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev with an agreement on energy cooperation. The deal will see the European Union fund a number of feasibility studies on Kazakhstani energy transport projects, which could give the Europeans alternatives to energy supplies from Russia.

EU-Russian relations have been strained recently by a mixture of political and economic tensions, and little suggests they will fundamentally improve anytime soon. A core reason for the friction is energy. Russia provides Europe about one-quarter of total European natural gas needs, and European governments are beginning to realize that Moscow will not hesitate to use this energy dependence to achieve its political goals. The only effective countermove open to the European Union is to establish alternate energy supplies.

Enter Kazakhstan.

While Kazakhstan cannot compete with Russian natural gas reserves -- the largest in the world -- it does boast a significant 2 trillion cubic meters in proven reserves, and intends to produce a great deal of natural gas as a consequence of deposits overlaying its oil extraction plans. Superprojects such as
Kazakhstan's Kashagan program could well produce "waste" natural gas in the billions of cubic meters -- natural gas Europe would love to help harvest to supply its needs.

The key problem, as usual, is transport. Kazakhstan's existing natural gas export infrastructure is tied to Russia, and Russia has no interest in helping Kazakhstani natural gas reach Europe. Currently, Russia buys Kazakhstan's entire surplus product for domestic consumption, using the wiggle room created to export even more Russian natural gas to Europe.

To change this state of affairs, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs is tinkering with a plan to resurrect a previously abandoned proposal: the Transcaspian pipeline. Originally, the Transcaspian pipeline was to begin in Turkmenistan -- another Central Asian state in which Russia commands a near-monopoly on export options -- and cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. It would then flow through Georgia and Turkey, and ultimately to Europe.

The Transcaspian was abandoned for three reasons.

First, Russian natural gas was relatively cheap at the time, making a subsea line cost-prohibitive, especially one below the deep waters of the central and southern Caspian.

Second, the Caspian's legal status remained unresolved after the Soviet breakup.

And third, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is, to put it gently, quite a character. In addition to renaming himself the "Turkmenbashi," or "father of all Turkmen," he has renamed the months of the year, largely replaced the country's education system with his collected spiritual advice and generally ranks among the most eccentric personalities in the former Soviet world. No one wanted to make a multibillion-dollar investment project dependent upon such a man's whims.

For these reasons, other transport routes garnered scarce investment dollars. But now, the circumstances have certainly changed. Most of those other projects are done or will soon be finished, but European demand continues unabated. And Moscow has increased the price of natural gas to Europe by more than 200 percent in the past three years. This has made the European Union re-evaluate cost-benefit scenarios for alternate supply routes.

Transcaspian Pipeline

The shallower northern Caspian, often less than 30 feet deep, is cheaper to operate in; by contrast, the central and southern Caspian often reaches 1,600 feet in depth. Moreover, progress on resolving the Caspian Sea's legal status has been made. Since the country that would object the most ferociously -- Russia -- is the state the Europeans are trying to avoid, Russia's legal arguments do not hold as much weight as before. Finally, Piebalgs' plan would have the Transcaspian begin from Kazakhstan, not the land of the mercurial Turkmenbashi. While Kazakhstan may not exactly be an investors' paradise, and there are certainly human rights issues to consider, Kazakhstan has two big redeeming qualities: It is not Russia and it is not Turkmenistan.

Europe would like to see a robust long-term relationship with Kazakhstan, and it envisions not just a successful Transcaspian, but one that could be expanded in time. A well-designed project would take into account that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could potentially send natural gas through existing infrastructure to Kazakhstan -- and then west through the Transcaspian to Europe instead of north to Russia. A future European-Kazakhstani deal on nuclear power is also possible, which would lessen Kazakhstani demand for natural gas and release even more natural gas for export.

Naturally, Russia will be the bogeyman in all this. Moscow wants to keep Europe hooked on its energy supplies and Kazakhstan as dependent on Russia as possible. Using the energy tool against either party, however, will only encourage the Europeans and Kazakhstanis to cooperate more closely. In Kazakhstan's case, this has already happened -- and will continue to happen. At independence, all of Kazakhstan's oil exports transited Russia, but now the proportion is just over two-thirds. And finishing construction of existing projects to China and the West will likely drop that figure down to about one-half within five years.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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