Turkmenistan Faces Unprecedented Calls to Clean Up Methane Leaks

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(Bloomberg) -- Turkmenistan, the central Asian state that’s one of the world’s biggest sources of planet-warming methane leaks, is facing growing international pressure to clean up its pollution.The sparsely populated nation, led by reclusive dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, sits atop the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves. Aging infrastructure used to tap that fuel, run by an opaque state-run energy sector, spews more methane per unit of oil and gas output than any other major supplier. So far, other countries have said little publicly to engage the regime and push for change.

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That’s starting to change as diplomatic efforts accelerate ahead of the annual United Nations climate conference, COP28, hosted by the United Arab Emirates later this year. Officials want to work with Turkmenistan to rein in its leaks, Saamir Elshihabi, the head of energy transition for COP28, said during a speech at Turkmenistan’s International Investment Forum in Dubai on Wednesday.

“We see this as a huge opportunity for Turkmenistan,” Elshihabi said, while emphasizing the role that fossil fuels will play at this year’s summit with a major oil producer leading the talks. “Historically, oil and gas has not been part of the COP conversation,” he said. “This year, we take this responsibility very seriously in the UAE.”

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The US has also broached the topic. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed opportunities for methane emissions reduction from the oil and gas sector with Turkmenistan Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov when the two met in Washington this month, according to a readout from the State Department.

Many of the fixes required to curb Turkmenistan’s methane leaks are relatively simple. For instance, scientists using satellite data last year estimated that repairing just 29 pieces of equipment could halt methane leaks that have a similar global warming impact as the annual emissions from all the cars in Alabama.

The largest foreign energy company in Turkmenistan is China National Petroleum Corp., which primarily operates in Turkmenistan’s southeastern gas fields, piping the output for consumption in China. Overall, energy production is dominated by two state-owned companies, Turkmengaz and Turkmenneft, both controlled by Berdymukhamedov and his allies.

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Commercial and diplomatic ties between the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan appear to be growing. Berdymukhamedov, who was succeeded by his son as president last year but assumed the title of Chairman of the People's Council of Turkmenistan, visited UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in February.

If Turkmenistan decides to capture methane rather than just burn it off or release it, its companies could benefit with more gas to sell. Turkmenistan and the UAE in March announced a preliminary agreement to work together on the next stage of the super-giant gas Galkynysh field in eastern Turkmenistan. If the project proceeds, state-run companies Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. and Turkmengaz will collaborate on it, according to a UAE statement.

However, there’s little evidence that Turkmenistan has agreed to take any concrete steps to curb methane leaks. Adnoc isn't currently working on any gas or methane projects in Turkmenistan beyond knowledge-sharing activities, Mohamed Al Aryani, executive vice president of Adnoc International, told reporters at the same event on Wednesday.

"We're not looking specifically at upstream investments in Turkmenistan for the time being," Aryani said. "I wouldn't say there's a plan. There are broader discussions about collaboration but specifically in upstream collaboration in Turkmenistan, nothing."

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