Business as usual will not help the people or the climate in Turkmenistan.
In June 2023, several highly regarded international media outlets, including Bloomberg and the Guardian, reported ongoing negotiations between the United States and Turkmenistan to tackle the methane leakage plaguing Turkmenistan’s oil and gas industry. Turkmenistan was the focus of these media stories because the country was found to be responsible for the highest number of methane “super-emitter” events in the world in 2022. Preventing the repeated occurrence of major methane leaks from Turkmenistan’s fossil fuel sites would provide the fastest, simplest, and cheapest way to reduce methane emissions in Turkmenistan and by extension, in the world, thereby achieving a major win in averting the ever-increasing dangers resulting from the climate crisis.
However, the US-Turkmenistan negotiations and agreed-upon outcome cannot be handled as “business as usual” because it poses reputational and financial risks to the United States and to Western companies. The agreement must include relevant benchmarks and safeguards to ensure fiscal transparency and accountability. The US engagement in this arrangement must bring about positive developments for Turkmenistan’s population as well as for the global environment.
Why focus on methane emissions by Turkmenistan?
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves and the highest rate of methane leakage from fossil fuels worldwide. Methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, has an 80-fold greater global warming potential than CO2 over a 20-year time frame. Beginning with the year 2019, ongoing data shows that Turkmenistan has accounted for the majority of the world’s 500 most intense global methane releases in the oil-gas sector (see chart below). In 2022, the amount of methane leaked in Turkmenistan was equivalent to the total CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom for that same year. It is estimated that approximately 7% of Turkmenistan’s gas is wasted through its release into the atmosphere.
While addressing the problem could be a major win in slowing climate change, it is also relatively easy to accomplish. Experts attribute these leaks to the aging infrastructure and the unflared release of gas from oil extraction fields. According to researchers in Europe, fixing just 29 venting sources could address the majority of these leaks and potentially reduce global emissions by 3%. Capturing all the gas leaked by Turkmenistan’s energy sector would be the same as eliminating 92 million tons of CO2 emissions each year. It could also help recover 5.8 billion cubic meters of gas that is now being wasted.
Thanks to the satellite technology employed by the environmental intelligence company Kayrros, the international community has become aware of Turkmenistan’s significant methane emissions. Extensive international coverage might have motivated the US to start talks with the government of Turkmenistan and to offer financial and technical support in order to mitigate gas leaks in Turkmenistan’s oil and gas industry. It is expected that an agreement will be reached prior to the United Nations’ COP28 Climate Summit in November/December 2023. However, Turkmenistan still has not signed the methane pledge, a globally concerted effort to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 that was announced in November 2021 at the COP 26 in Glasgow.
Turkmenistan lacks a clear and actionable strategy to address the imminent threats of global warming. Turkmenistan’s national strategy on climate change and the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions have no credible data, no targets, and no measurable commitments. Turkmenistan is not prepared for the dramatic changes that climate change will bring and in fact are already appearing. Average temperatures in Turkmenistan are projected to rise by up to 5.1°C by the 2090s, with the pace of warming significantly exceeding the global average (the World Bank). The uninformed and disengaged public, including the most vulnerable groups, will bear the brunt of continued government inaction.
Why is it important to get the US-Turkmenistan deal right?
In addition to easing any future burden on the people of Turkmenistan and elsewhere, a US-Turkmenistan agreement on lessening methane emissions also has the potential to benefit Turkmenistan’s oil and gas industry, Turkmenistan-US relations, and, most importantly, the global environment. It can also encourage other methane emitting countries such as Venezuela, Iran, and Algeria to follow suit. According to Bloomberg, the financing for this deal may come from the US Export-Import Bank, a governmental organization that assists American exporters by reducing the risks associated with international trade, thereby facilitating the sale of goods and services abroad. Energy services companies with expertise in oil fields, such as Halliburton and SLB, are potential candidates to carry out the operations required to track the leaks and replace equipment. While the US government could earn major points worldwide for spearheading this effort, it could also easily earn serious criticism if it were to be complicit with the endemic corruption and opaque administration in the public sector in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan has an abysmal record for lacking fiscal transparency, and corruption is prevalent in the public sector. The public has not seen the full state budget for the last 31 years. Any presence of a culture of public communication and education is nonexistent. To avoid perpetuating these deeply perilous structural issues and to have a positive impact on both the environment and the public in Turkmenistan, it is essential that the US government introduce clear structures for transparency and accountability in its engagement with the government of Turkmenistan.
Recommendations to the government of the United States and other stakeholders:
- Make public the “the Roadmap for 2023-2024 for the development of international cooperation aimed at exploring Turkmenistan’s accession to the Global Methane Pledge and the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement at the national level.” This was not publicly available as of June 19, 2023.
- Establish an independent, consultative committee comprising representatives from the government, business, and civil society both from Turkmenistan and the United States to monitor the funding, progress, and implementation of the deal. The committee’s regular meetings and reports should be made public.
- Engage with the public and civil society to discuss the progress of the proposed program and to solicit feedback on the environmental and social impacts of the projects.
- Set benchmarks before the start of the project: collect and publish all data to track the progress and publicly communicate information about the research plans, budget, funding sources, the specific companies and locations involved in shutting down the methane leaks, and the assessment of the social and environmental impacts of the initiative.
- Make public all information on any financial contributions made by the government of Turkmenistan as well as any international stakeholders.
- Track and disclose any facilitation payments made to the government of Turkmenistan and/or Turkmen corporate entities.
- Establish clear public communication channels to relay information to and educate the public about the progress of the project and receive and respond to its members’ suggestions and complaints.
Progres Foundation calls on relevant stakeholders to engage with both national and international civil society organizations, prioritize the public’s access to project information, and launch public communication when designing the engagement with the government of Turkmenistan. Progres Foundation stands ready to provide information and input in designing the transparent and accountable structures to enable the provided recommendations.
About Progres Foundation
Progres Foundation (“Progres” with one “s” as is used in the Turkmen language) is a non-profit organization based in the United States that supports various progressive initiatives that contribute to an understanding of intrinsic social realities on the part of the citizens of Turkmenistan and to shaping a new vision for sustainable human development that includes new and vital approaches necessary for its achievement. In response to its mission of progressive change, Progres Foundation has established two flagship informational portals. Saglyk.org has been successfully working to improve public health literacy in Turkmenistan over the last 12 years, including its becoming a leading source of COVID-19 information in the Turkmen language during the pandemic. Progres.online is an online analytical journal that promotes nuanced understanding of the societal trends in Turkmenistan by providing quality research and policy analysis.
Featured image details:
East of Hazar, Turkmenistan, a port city on the Caspian Sea, 12 plumes of methane stream westward. The plumes were detected by NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation mission and some of them stretch for more than 20 miles (32 kilometers).