Thursday, December 20, 2007

Central Asia on front line in energy battle

In the scrub brush desert south of this ancient Silk Road town, the natural gas wellheads are built on modest concrete platforms about the size of basketball courts. Because the gas is naturally pressurized, pumps are not needed to bring it to the surface. Pipes simply kiss the ground and gas pours through them.

The issue is where the gas goes from there.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States and its European allies sought to ensure that Central Asia's enormous oil and gas wealth would flow through pipelines bypassing Russia. It was the latest version of the Great Game, the 19th-century contest between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia for dominance in the region. Lately, however, the West is falling behind, as a torch lighting ceremony last month made clear.

Executives from Lukoil, the Russian oil company, and government officials from Moscow had come to inaugurate the latest Central Asia gas field to come online. Developed by Lukoil, the Khauzak field is estimated to hold 400 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which Lukoil has sold in advance for the next 32 years to Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant.

Coming as some political developments in the region had renewed Western companies' hopes of doing business in Central Asia, the Nov. 29 ceremony — held before a planeload of Moscow-based journalists flown in for the occasion — seemed tailored to remind the world of Russia's lead in the new Great Game.

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