(Bloomberg) -- American officials are negotiating a deal to help Turkmenistan curb its vast methane emissions, potentially sealing a major breakthrough in the global fight against climate change and notching a diplomatic coup for President Joe Biden.
Officials from the two countries are in serious talks over a possible agreement that could see the US providing financial support and expertise to assist the central Asian state in plugging leaks that allow planet-warming gas to escape from its aging fossil fuel infrastructure, according to senior US State Department officials and people familiar with the negotiations. They asked not to be named because the discussions are confidential.
The people expressed optimism an agreement will be reached within months, with an announcement targeted before the United Nations COP28 climate summit starts in November. Work could be underway at pilot sites by the end of the year, they said.
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About 7% of Turkmenistan’s gas is currently being wasted, the State Department officials said, citing estimates from the International Energy Agency and World Bank. The fossil fuel sometimes leaks accidentally but can also be released into the air deliberately or burned off if there’s insufficient infrastructure to get the gas to market — a practice that remains common in other countries including the US. Negotiators hope to close in on a deal that captures as much of that gas as possible.
Methane — the main component of natural gas — traps more than 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the atmosphere. That’s why it’s risen to the top of the climate agenda in many countries as a quick and relatively easy fix.
Capturing more of Turkmenistan’s gas would still produce CO2 emissions when it’s eventually combusted for energy. But the overall global warming impact would be much lower. If all the gas that’s leaked or vented by Turkmenistan’s energy sector was salvaged and burned instead, it would have roughly the same effect as wiping out about 92 million tons of CO2 each year, according to calculations by Bloomberg Green. That’s about twice the total amount of carbon that can be captured from smokestacks globally today.
The US and European Union made methane a top issue ahead of COP26 in 2021, ultimately rallying some 150 nations behind a global pledge to slash global emissions 30% by the end of the decade. Nearly two years after that pact was unveiled, focus has moved beyond enrolling more countries in the initiative to taking action on the ground.
“Numbers on the pledge aren’t going to resonate anymore,” said Jonathan Banks, global director of methane pollution prevention for the Clean Air Task Force, one of the leading climate groups advocating to curb the super-pollutant. “There’s going to have to be real dollar figures and real projects. That’s the stuff that will show we are making progress.”
Turkmenistan is a logical, if geopolitically challenging, target. The nation sits atop the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves and spews more methane per unit of oil and gas output than any other major oil- or gas-producing country. The majority of the world’s 500 most intense global methane releases since 2019 that have been traced back to the oil and gas sector were in Turkmenistan, according to analysis of satellite data by Kayrros SAS. The US State Department officials estimated that fixing Turkmenistan’s leaks would help achieve at least 3% of the emissions reductions needed to fulfill the global pledge.But the regime led by dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his son has long been suspicious of foreign offers of help. The nation has few diplomatic ties to the outside world and has historically fallen under Soviet influence. Beijing is one of its most important patrons, given China is the biggest customer for Turkmenistan’s gas. Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to a letter seeking comment on the US talks.
If the two countries reach a deal, Turkmenistan could potentially recover as much as 5.8 billion cubic meters of gas, a boost for global supplies at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a severe shortage. US oilfield service firms Halliburton Co. and SLB, formerly named Schlumberger, would likely benefit by helping to track down leaks and replace equipment. The US has consulted with an array of industry and other stakeholders on the effort, the State Department officials said.
In many instances, the leaks may be relatively simple and inexpensive to address. Scientists last year estimated that repairing just 29 pieces of equipment in the country’s Western Caspian Basin could halt a large chunk of Turkmenistan’s methane leaks. The potential fixes include relighting extinguished flares, replacing old equipment and improving the operation of oil wells. Satellite data could help shape the work by demonstrating the country’s progress in curbing emissions and pinpointing the highest-priority targets, the State Department officials said.
The US Export-Import Bank is a potential source of financing, the officials said. An agreement also could potentially lure philanthropic and public funding as part of the $200 million methane finance sprint the US unveiled in April.
There have been signs that cooperation between the US and Turkmenistan is deepening. The US is providing “technical support” as Turkmenistan pursues World Trade Organization membership, according to a joint statement released after annual bilateral talks earlier this year.
A Turkmenistan package could be a model for bespoke deals focused on methane, like the multibillion-dollar just energy transition partnerships designed to help South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam move away from coal-fired power. It could also entice other countries, such as Algeria, to follow suit, Banks said.
“It adds to the fire a bit to get countries moving on this,” Banks said. “Algeria needs to see this and go, ‘OK, Turkmenistan got boatloads of money and all this technical assistance and support to do this, we should be doing that too.’”
--With assistance from Akshat Rathi.
(Updates sixth paragraph with additional details on size of emissions)
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