Turkmenistan, the unknown mega-polluter

DECODING. Turkmenistan ranks fifth in methane emissions in the world, after Russia and the United States. This does not come as good news for Central Asia’s most secretive country – and is also out of all proportion for the country with such a small population.

These emissions derive mostly from gas extraction, Turkmenistan’s primary source of wealth. The culture of secrecy and outdated infrastructure leave them to be observed through satellite. With COP26 in full swing, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkmenistan has promised to reduce methane emissions, which are 28 times more polluting than CO2 emissions. Here is an explanation of this delicate Turkmenistan situation.

This article was originally published on Novastan’s French website on 8 November 2021.

The International Energy Agency’s report does not cast a positive light on Turkmenistan, the fifth-largest emitter of methane in the world. In its Methane Tracker, the IEA makes it clear that Turkmenistan emits more methane than China. As Glasgow hosts the COP26 until November 12, this is an unenviable position.

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Ashgabat’s poor ranking was highlighted by the Bloomberg agency on 19 October. The article named Turkmenistan as the world’s third-highest methane emitter, right after Russia and the United States. Since then, this ranking was updated, although it was officially published in January 2021. Novastan requested a comment from the agency, but Bloomberg did not respond.

Whether it be third or fifth, Turkmenistan emits slightly more methane than China (with its 1.4 billion people), despite having only 2.7 million inhabitants – or 6.2 million according to official statistics. Methane is especially harmful to the environment, as it fuels global warming 28 times faster than CO2.

Ageing gas infrastructure

To explain this phenomenon, one must turn to the gas industry. Turkmenistan possesses the fourth-largest reserves of blue gold in the world. It extracts next to 60 billion cubic meters per year, with China as its main buyer. As Turkmenistan’s main resource, gas is intensively exploited.

The problem is that “most of the equipment is dilapidated, and leaks occur on a regular basis in the networks and deposits,” a reliable source states. “The government focuses on new developments, but companies lack skills”.

Massive methane leaks from these infrastructures have been detected over the past few years. In 2019, 2020 and February 2021, companies specialized in satellite data analysis warned of these leaks. “What is certain is that these emissions do not stem from the ‘regular’ gas or oil production process. Methane leaks can be avoided”, says Antoine Halff, lead analyst at Kayrros, a French company that participated in revealing the problem.

General lack of transparency

Generally speaking, large emissions can be caused by two things: either lax attitude towards industrial practices, bolstered by loose regulations, which means methane is intentionally released into the atmosphere during maintenance operations on pipelines, or equipment problems, such as poor or unsuitable infrastructure that leaks a lot of gas” Antoine Halff further explains. The second option probably applies to the Turkmen case.

Read more: Troubled waters: Turkmenistan’s environmental policy

Information from Turkmenistan is scarce, making it hard to say for sure. The authorities have never reacted to the leaks detected by Karryos or GHGSat, a Canadian firm also specializing in this sector. “It takes a lot of effort to determine the causes for Turkmenistan’s emissions, and whether they are intentional. Few public documents give information about the regulation of the hydrocarbon sector, and it is virtually impossible to know whether reports of incidents or leaks have been filed – at least, from a foreign perspective”, says Itziar Irakulis Loitxate, a scientist specializing in remote detection at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (Spain).

Satellites come to the rescue

In the face of this silence, satellite observation, among a few other things, can help determine the amount of methane emitted into atmosphere – and thereby make it possible for the IEA to rank countries. “The so-called ‘monitoring’ satellites make it possible to capture large emissions, which are occasional and therefore cannot be observed by sporadic checks”,  Antoine Halff says. “Furthermore, such observations are totally independent, do not require operators’ approval, and can better quantify large leaks than any other technology, especially ground-based sensors”.

On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that satellites can only see large emissions provided that the weather is not cloudy”, Itziar Irakulis Loitxate states. “Huge progress is being made in pushing the limits of emission detection. Several promising satellite missions are expected in the next few years, specializing in the precise detection of greenhouse gases”.

Turkmen authorities promise to reduce methane emissions

As it turns out, the Turkmen authorities have reacted to Bloomberg’s article. On November 4, Deputy Prime Minister – and President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s son – Serdar Berdimuhamedov said he was paying great attention to reducing methane emissions, the official press agency TDH says. Independent media Turkmen.news reports that he also flew to Glasgow in order to make sure his position was heard by the members of the COP26.

Serdar Berdimuhamedov seems to get ready to follow his father’s steps, which makes it a loaded statement. “Once identified, large methane emissions can be avoided easily.  The technology already exists, and its costs are negligible, if not negative, considering the benefits”, Antoine Halff claims.

Turkmenistan will have to work on upgrading old facilities and improving the skills and the sense of responsibility of technicians”, a local source tells Novastan. According to Itziar Irakulis Loitxate, “Turkmenistan can drastically reduce its emissions, but in order for that to happen, money should be invested in maintenance and stricter control over infrastructure”. In her opinion, Turkmenistan has the means to do so – “only time will tell how fast [it will be implemented]”.


Etienne Combier
Editor-in-Chief of Novastan

Translated from French by Andreï Fedorovsky

Edited by Anna Wilhelmi

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