The pipeline, which would terminate in India, would bring huge amounts of gas to underdeveloped regions and could earn impoverished Afghanistan hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees.
The route for the 1,700-kilometer TAPI pipeline from gas-rich Turkmenistan would cross Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, where the Taliban and international forces are locked in battle, as well as some of Pakistan’s unruly tribal areas.
Concerns about security for the pipeline itself and for the workers who construct it have cast doubt on the project’s near-term feasibility, but proponents say it would calm the chaotic region.
”Along with commercial and economic benefits, this project will also yield a stabilizing influence on the region and beyond” Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov said after the leaders signed a document supporting the project.
”Afghanistan will live up to its obligations in ensuring the pipeline’s construction and safety,” said Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose undertrained army struggles against the resurgent Taliban.
The project has also won vocal support from the United States, which is strongly opposed to India and Pakistan drawing supplies from Iran through another proposed gas pipeline.
Contents of the document signed by Karzai, Berdymukhamedov, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian petroleum minister Murli Deora were not immediately made public.
But the apparent next step will be to secure financial backing and firm bids from energy companies, which could prove an uphill struggle for a project so fraught with potential risks.
”This will not be an easy project to complete it is mandatory that we guarantee the security of the pipeline and the quality of construction work,” Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda told reporters in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.
Kuroda said his bank would offer its backing to the pipeline, but gave no specific details on how it would do so.
Turkmenistan, which is believed to hold the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is eager to find new markets for its potentially gargantuan energy exports amid flagging interest from Russia, its traditional client.
Plans to build a pipeline transporting the former Soviet nation’s gas to Western Europe to date remain hazy ambitions.
Berdymukhamedov said the pipeline would deliver up to 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually, welcome relief for energy-parched nations along the route.
According to a preliminary breakdown, India and Pakistan would each get about 42 per cent of the gas and Afghanistan the remainder.
Attempts to build a pipeline through Afghanistan date back to the mid-1990s, when the US-led consortium Unocal was locked in fierce competition with Argentina’s Bridas to win a deal to construct and run the route.
But as the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, those ambitions were shelved and remained so during the next decade’s war.
Turkmen officials estimate that construction of the pipeline could generate around 12,000 jobs in Afghanistan and earn it several hundred millions dollars annually in transit fees.
Turkmenistan has sought to broaden its client base after Russia sharply cut back its imports from the Central Asian nation. A 1,800-kilometer pipeline to China began pumping natural gas late last year.
The scale of those commitments have elicited doubt among some energy experts that Turkmenistan will be able to fill the TAPI pipeline.
Berdymukhamedov insisted Saturday that recent surveys by Turkmen specialists at the vast South Yolotan field, from which much of the gas is expected to be drawn, appear to suggest reserves may be even larger than previously believed.
An independent British auditing company reported in 2008 that the field may hold up to 14 trillion cubic meters of gas, but Berdymukhamedov said the figure may be closer to 22 trillion cubic meters.