BRUSSELS, March 16 (UPI) -- Momentum is quickly building to conclude a trans-Caspian Sea pipeline agreement between the European Union, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, officials' comments indicate.
Negotiations between the three parties to build the proposed 185-mile undersea pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan began in September and are reportedly proceeding at a rapid pace, with most officials predicting the talks will be successfully concluded this year.
European Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger said his aim was to wrap up a deal on the Trans-Caspian Pipeline System "as soon as possible" as a means to add 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually to a new southern gas corridor transit route from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Azeri Industry and Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev told a business audience Feb. 29 the parties were working on documents that would authorize the delivery of the Turkmen gas to Europe, the Baku news agency Trend reported.
Aliyev said they included a political document that would solidify support the southern corridor as well as an inter-governmental agreement on undersea pipeline itself, reiterating his belief the agreement should be in place before the end of the year.
A source within Oettinger's office confirmed Wednesday the talks were "well progressing" at a technical level.
"It is a process that is taking place in a constructive atmosphere and talks are well progressing," the source told Trend. "Conclusions will be found when time is right."
The report reinforced optimism expressed by Oettinger in late January, when he told the Russian news agency Interfax he expected a deal to be struck by June, describing the talks as "intensive" yet "constructive."
The EU has said the discussions are aimed at hammering out legal commitments between the Europe, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, as well as producing the bilateral deals needed between the Caspian countries.
Also on table are the pipeline's terms of the operation and the legal framework meant to keep it supplied with gas from Turkmenistan.
"Europe is now speaking with one voice," Oettinger said in September. "The trans-Caspian pipeline is a major project in the southern corridor to bring new sources of gas to Europe. We have the intention of achieving this as soon as possible."
Turkmenistan has proposed supplying 40 billion cubic meters of gas per year, with 10 billion coming from offshore wells and another 30 billion through a new, 620-mile, east-west pipeline connecting the Central Asian country's eastern Galkynysh field to the Caspian seacoast.
That amount would more than fill the capacity of the proposed, EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, through which its backers hope to directly connect the Caspian gas to Austria via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
The EU's efforts to establish a southern gas corridor are aimed at freeing Europe from its dependence on Russian gas. Moscow, as well as Iran, opposes the trans-Caspian pipeline effort.
Russia, which is developing its South Stream project in the same region, contends the deal would upset the legal and geopolitical balance in the Caspian basin.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in September decisions affecting the region need to involve Moscow due to a 2007 treaty among Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran.
That agreement states a consensus on environmental and legal concerns must be reached among them before the laying of any international pipelines in the Caspian Sea, the Russian official said.