4 Min Read
* Pakistan scrambles to ease energy crisis
* Long delays raise doubts
* Security issue in Afghanistan
By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Pakistan will push hard for quick implementation of a long-delayed trans-regional gas pipeline from Turkmenistan in a bid to ease its mounting energy crisis, the petroleum minister said on Tuesday.
Senior officials of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on Monday inked the framework of an agreement to construct the project with an estimated value of $3.3 billion.
The so-called TAPI project would pump natural gas to Pakistan and India through the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, the stronghold of the Taliban and its birthplace.
More energy security could ease pressure on Pakistan's government, which faces a range of challenges, from a homegrown Taliban insurgency to what will likely be years of economic pain after summer floods caused billions of dollars in damages.
But analysts said the agreement was still at a preliminary stage and that security challenges in Afghanistan and the tensions between India and Pakistan remained an obstacle.
Proposals to build the pipeline have been on the table since the 1990s but war in Afghanistan delayed the project.
"We are following a very, very aggressive timeframe to conclude agreements on this project as early as possible," Pakistani Petroleum Minister Naveed Qamar told Reuters by telephone on his way home from Turkmenistan, where the agreement was initialed on Monday.
"But it's too early to say that when these agreements will be completed and when the project will be implemented. Everything is subject to conclusion of agreements."
The big question is can Afghanistan provide security for the pipeline?
A Taliban insurgency is still raging there after nine years of war and more uncertainty is expected after U.S. troops start withdrawing next summer.
Any new tensions between arch-enemies Pakistan and India could also complicate efforts to get the project moving.
Qamar said a final framework agreement is expected to be signed at a summit of the leaders of the four countries in December.
A pact covering the broad principles of sale and purchase of gas was also signed.
Although some Pakistani energy officials hailed the tentative agreement, analysts say it may just be more wishful thinking.
"It's an agreement to reach another agreement without any concrete details and until then it cannot be termed as important," said Khalid Iqbal Siddiqui, director of Pakistan's Invest and Finance Securities Ltd. "This is not the first time it has happened."
The planned pipeline would have initial capacity for 33 billion cubic metres a year and would run for nearly 2,000 km (1,250 miles), including 735 km across Afghanistan and another 800 km through Pakistan.
Natural gas to fill the pipeline could be drawn from the massive South Iolotan deposit, currently under development, and the existing Dovletabad field.
Pakistan also hopes a major gas pipeline project from Iran will help it tackle its energy problems.
In March, the two sides signed a deal to build a much-delayed $7.6 billion pipeline pumping Iranian natural gas to Pakistan.
That project may also be fraught with political uncertainties as the United States has been discouraging Pakistan from any deal with Tehran because of its suspected ambitions to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies it has such ambitions.
(Additional reporting by Sahar Ahmed in Karachi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev Miglani)
For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here.