Experts Doubt China Gas Plan


China plans to begin importing Central Asian gas by 2011 through what will be the world’s longest pipeline once it is built. But the huge $27 billion project is unlikely to be complete in three years, experts say.

On Feb. 22, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) began work on a West-East gas pipeline—the second of its kind—that will run nearly 4,900 kilometers (3,000 miles) from Xinjiang to Guangdong province in the south and join existing links to Shanghai.

The new pipeline, which will cross 14 provinces, will have nearly twice the capacity of the first West-East project, completed in 2004.

I think what [China is] afraid of is that if they postpone it, then Turkmenistan will be building other pipelines, and there won’t be enough gas left for the Chinese.

The huge trans-China line will be linked to an equally ambitious project through Central Asia, bringing 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has agreed to supply the amount annually for 30 years, starting in 2009.

Over the past several weeks, CNPC officials have changed deadlines and details of the project several times, at first insisting that construction in China would be completed in 2010. But according to a company statement Feb. 25, the entire project is now expected to be finished by the end of 2011.

Competitive fears

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s rush to build may be driven by competitive fears.

Russia has plans to increase its pipeline capacity from Turkmenistan, while the United States has been urging the country to take part in a project to pipe gas across the Caspian Sea for supplies to Europe.

“I think what [China is] afraid of is that if they postpone it, then Turkmenistan will be building other pipelines, and there won’t be enough gas left for the Chinese,” Ebel said.

Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the University of Dundee in Edinburgh, Scotland, said the proposed construction schedule will pose a major challenge in terms of steel and other supplies and will put pressure on China’s rail system, which is already operating at full capacity.

Andrews-Speed also said residents along the new pipeline’s route may be more conscious of the environmental impacts of construction than those who were affected by the building of the first West-East pipeline.

“What is changing all the time in China is the public awareness of the impacts of these projects that we have seen as related to dams [and] to railway lines, particularly in the paths of the projects that go through the more populated parts of China.”

Public concern

Since the first West-East pipeline was pushed through, citizens have become more vocal in protesting big projects that threaten to disrupt their way of life, as in the case of the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev railway, which has been stalled by neighborhood objections since last May.

The new West-East pipeline project will also require major work in China’s cities to lay gas networks under streets so that the fuel from Central Asia can be used.

“You can actually build a pipeline quite quickly to the city gate, but developing the networks within the city takes more time,” Andrews-Speed said.

Whether China’s government plans to raise gas and power prices over the next three years to help pay for the pipeline’s construction remains unclear, experts say.

“One should regard this as a state project, with the state company [CNPC] as an instrument of the state,” Andrews-Speed said. “If it happens to be commercially viable, fine, the company can pay for it. If it isn’t, the state through one mechanism or another will pay for it.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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