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Turkmen Energy Extraction Threatens Environment

Experts call for new energy projects to be accompanied with transparent monitoring of their environmental effects.
By IWPR Central Asia
Deals to increase extraction of Turkmen hydrocarbons are being done behind closed doors, with no information available on measures taken to protect the environment, say analysts.

Environmentalists are calling for the authorities in energy-rich Turkmenistan, which ranks fourth in the world for natural gas extraction, to conduct independent monitoring of the damage to the environment caused by extraction and processing, and to make information on this publicly available.

Apart from the state oil and gas producer, there are also 48 foreign firms involved in developing sites under production-sharing agreements, including Dubai-based Dragon Oil, Malaysian government owned Petronas, Denmark’s Maersk and the German Wintershall.

While these foreign investors have to meet certain environmental obligations, the terms of their contracts are confidential and inaccessible to the public.

Within the last six months, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov has been actively seeking new energy partners and has invited a number of foreign companies to come in.

In March, he made it a priority to develop the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea. Under a state plan, Turkmenistan is supposed to increase production of natural gas by 50 per cent and oil by 15 per cent by the end of 2007, both by opening up new finds and using imported technology to rationalise extraction and processing.

In mid-October, Berdymuhammedov took a step towards opening up access to energy resources for British companies when he signed a memorandum of understanding with the Minister of State for Energy, Malcolm Wicks. One month earlier, Ashgabat agreed to a number of joint oil and gas projects with Japan’s JGC Corporation.

A substantial increase in investment is expected after an international oil and gas exhibition and conference scheduled for the end of December.

However, environmentalists are concerned about the effect of more energy projects.

Tight restrictions on information in mean that there has been no independent environmental monitoring in the country for a long time. and there is no official data on the environmental situation.

In September 2007, the United States-based pressure groups Crude Accountability published a report in which it expressed its concern at the lack of available information both on the environmental obligations of investors in Turkmen energy, and on terms of compensation that oil and gas companies must pay in the case of environmental pollution.

One of the report’s recommendations was that “companies should ensure that environmental impact assessments are conducted properly and in compliance not only with national legislation but also with the highest international standards”.

One local ecologist says the Turkmen government is not willing to cooperate with experts on the environment.

“We do not have environmentalists who could conduct research on environmental changes and the impact of drilling sites on human and animal immune systems. [We are] are not allowed in anywhere, and we play no role in important environmental decisions,” said the employee of an Ashgabat environmental organisation who asked to remain anonymous.

An employee of Turkmenistan’s nature protection ministry insisted, however, that checks were in place to protect the environment and ensure that companies met their obligations.

“No contract will be concluded without an environmental impact assessment. Waste water must not exceed 0.005 milligrams of petrochemicals products per litre. For instance, at our request the Malaysian company Petronas is currently procuring additional equipment,” the official told IWPR.

However, an analyst working on a local environmental project believes the current measures are insufficient, and would like to see the government allow independent environmental experts to visit oil and gas fields under development to assess the situation.

“There should be public monitoring at all sites, and the state must impose the highest requirements on investors,” he said.

A scientist from Turkmenistan’s Institute for Desert Research, who specialises in the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction, said that even with the latest production methods, pollution is inevitable.

“We are on the brink of an environmental catastrophe, because the Caspian cannot withstand… an intervention like wide-scale development of oil and gas fields,” argued the scientist.

Residents of Turkmenbashi, a major port on the eastern Caspian, are concerned that further developing the oil and gas industry may pose a threat to them.

Over one billion dollars has been earmarked for an upgrade of the local oil refining complex, one of the biggest in the country.

“I worry about the arrival of a large number of foreign companies,” said a doctor from the city. “How conscientiously will they fulfill all the requirements? How will they dispose of waste products? What impact will all of these have on the environment?”

The residents may have reason to be worried. On the Saymonov Bay on the city outskirts, oil refineries have been disposing of waste for many years, and there is evidence of pollution.

Analysts say the last environmental study here was done in 1993, and showed then that the concentration of hydrocarbons in the air was 400 times what it should be, and levels of toxic phenols was 70 to 80 times higher than normal.

People who live there say there is an unpleasant smell in the air whenever the weather is windy.

“If the wind blows off the sea, we immediately close the windows of our homes so as not to be suffocated,” said one local.

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