ASHBAGAT: While the golden domes of Turkmenistan's presidential palace hint at the country's fantastic gas wealth, the reclusive Central Asian country remains a slumbering giant in the high stakes game of energy politics.
An ex-Soviet republic of five million, Turkmenistan boasts more gas reserves per capita than any other country bar Qatar. But it has so far proved unable to bring its energy bounty to a competitive market as low prices and technological improvements have expanded options for importers elsewhere.
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And time may be slipping away for the authoritarian regime in Ashgabat with pressure coming not only from more producer nations but also the growth of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Once hailed as a missing piece in energy security puzzles from Brussels to Delhi, only China has established a firm grip over the hermit-like country's strategic hydrocarbon wealth, while former chief buyer Russia has seemingly turned away.
Beijing's China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) imports over 30 billion cubic metres of Turkmen gas annually via a pipeline it threaded through neighbouring nations Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2009.
Russia's Gazprom, meanwhile, announced earlier this year its decision to wind down long-standing energy imports from its former Soviet ally, leaving the undiversified Turkmen economy pegged to Chinese demand.
"Here the leverage in terms of any future contract negotiations is very much in favour of the buyer," says Andrew Neff, senior energy analyst at the global IHS Energy consultancy.
"As long as China keeps ramping up imports, the Turkmen government will keep buying itself marble palaces. If it stops or decides to drive the price down, that country will face real problems."
Low prices for hydrocarbons and the rise of alternatives to piped gas such as shale and LNG have cast a shadow over two multi-country pipeline projects analysts say would establish Turkmenistan as a key player on the global energy market.
The $5 billion-plus Trans-Caspian pipeline that would funnel gas along the seabed of the Caspian Sea towards markets in Europe and the $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline slated to feed energy-starved populations in South Asia would have a combined capacity of over 60 billion cubic metres of gas annually.
While both links have been endorsed by participating countries they lack critical commercial backing and face competition from other potential links originating in gas-rich Russia and Iran.
At an annual investment conference held in Ashgabat this month, Turkmen officials tried to restore faith in both mega-projects.
Oil and Gas Minister Muhammetnur Halylov described Turkmenistan as a "reliable, stable and responsible partner with a good reputation and high international standing."
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Speaking on the sidelines of the conference Charles Hendry, Britain's former energy and climate change minister, credited "the drive of the Turkmen government" in moving to complete its own sections of both links.
"Europe is going to go on needing gas well into the future," Hendry, who now chairs the London-based Eurasia Partners Ltd consultancy, told AFP of the Trans-Caspian proposal.
"The more we have that through established, stable routes of supply, the more that will be beneficial."
But other industry analysts, like Laurent Ruseckas, a senior advisor at Veracity Worldwide, remain skeptical.
"Political will alone does not bring multi-billion dollar projects into fruition. What is the gas price? Subtract from that the transportation costs and factor in construction," Ruseckas told AFP by telephone.
"Both projects face significant challenges right there before questions of political risk even enter the equation."
The glut on the global gas market is particularly significant for Turkmenistan, which counts on hydrocarbons for over 80% of total exports and has a debt to CNPC for the construction of the Central Asia-China pipeline still outstanding.
Turkmenistan's economy has been struggling and earlier this year it devalued its manat currency by a fifth, mirroring central bank strategies in other energy-rich ex-Soviet economies.
Earlier this month an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission urged the Turkmen government to diversify and create conditions for private entrepreneurship.
It also predicted a growth slowdown of four percentage points over the next two years on the back of low hydrocarbon prices. In 2014, Turkmenistan's economy expanded by 10% and it is forecast to see growth slow to about 7.0% this year and 6.0% in 2016, according to the IMF.
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While Ashgabat may still be banking on its vast gas wealth to help dig the country out of any trouble, time is not on the side of the Turkmen leadership.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum pointed out the challenges, including the growth of LNG production as well as the potential re-emergence of Iran as a major energy supplier if international sanctions are lifted.
"There are many more producer countries than there were on the map, 20, 10 or even five years ago," Rosenblum said at the oil and gas conference in Ashgabat.
"As the global energy market transforms, the window of opportunity for some projects may begin to close."
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