05/05/2006, 00.00
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Cheney in Kazakhstan to boost gas pipeline plan that bypasses Russia

Trans-Caspian sub-sea gas route is planned. The US and the EU want to avoid routing energy supplies through Russia.

Altana (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and US Vice President Dick Cheney met today in Astana to discuss plans for trans-Caspian pipelines that would bring oil and gas to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and then Europe, after crossing the territories of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, thus avoiding Russia altogether.

For many years, the United States, Russia and China have been competing for the favours of oil- and gas-rich countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, regions on the cusp of Europe and Asia.

Mr Nazarbayev wants to diversify Kazakh energy export routes, but has not yet decided whether to buy into the US scheme. Kazakhstan already sells oil to China through a massive pipeline that began operations last week.

"Kazakhstan wants to build up cooperation with the European Union to diversify hydrocarbon export routes," Kazakh Energy Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov said after talks with visiting EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs. With this in mind, the Kazakh energy ministry will send a proposal to the European Commission on a feasibility study for a Trans-Caspian pipe-line.

Last week, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev was in Washington on a visit that underscored his country's role to the US as a reliable partner.

Turkey is another major player as a gas transit hub, including gas from Russia, but Washington wants to make Ankara more independent from Moscow.

Russia has instead insisted that a Caspian sub sea gas pipeline would have an unacceptable environmental impact.

For Kate Hardin, Cambridge Energy Research Associates director, "Europe and the US took a second look at the map" of Central Asia after the crisis in January when Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant, temporarily shut off gas supplies to Ukraine, reducing the flow to all Europe (which gets 25 per cent of its gas from Russia).

In this Great Game, the Caspian is becoming a focal point in the search for new supplies because of its vast energy reserves and because Caspian nations may be easier to reach than others in regions like Africa, said Alfa Bank chief strategist Chris Weafer. Competition is high and "China and India have a huge appetite for energy and will give favourable terms," he added.

According to experts a trans-Caspian gas pipeline has to be agreed to by all littoral states, including Iran. Hence Zeyno Baran, director of the Eurasian Policy Center at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, added that any discussion of a Kazakh pipeline would just be "the start of a long process". (PB)

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