Pipeline security International guarantees must for gas pipeline

TRILATERAL negotiations on an overland, natural gas pipeline from Iran to India appear to have reached critical mass, with the three countries now talking of floating joint venture companies (JVs) on their respective sides , to take the project further. The Iranians are talking tough on the price of gas and the Pakistanis are demanding more royalty than India is prepared to pay. 
Since the pipeline will run through Pakistan’s Balochistan and Sind provinces, with attendant security risks, decisions made today will affect India’s energy security and have an impact on the growing economy for decades to come. 
The Persian Gulf region is a major source of oil and natural gas for India. Iran is an energy giant with one foot in the Caspian Sea and the second in the Persian Gulf. It is mutually beneficial for India and Iran to enter into a buyer-seller relationship for natural gas that Iran has in abundance and India desperately needs. The geographical location of Iran’s natural gas reserves at the South Pars field is such that the Indian – and, to some extent, Pakistani – markets are the only major markets that can be profitably served by this gas. 
Natural gas is transported either through overland or undersea pipelines in its natural state or as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Liquefying gas and transporting it as LNG in oil tankers is a costly venture. The capital outlay that would need to be incurred would include an expenditure of US $ 2 billion for a liquefaction unit, US $ 200 million for each LNG tanker and US $ 500 million for a re-gasification plant. 
Considered purely in economic terms, overland pipelines present the most viable commercial option. The 2,200 km overland pipeline from Assaluyeh and Bandar Abbas in Iran, which would pass through Pakistan and link up with the existing HBJ pipeline in Rajasthan, is likely to cost between US $ 3 to 4 billion. 
Since this pipeline would supply natural gas to Pakistan also, the cost would be proportionately shared by India, Iran and Pakistan. The 2,900 km offshore pipeline from Bandar Abbas to Jamnagar, through shallow waters on the Continental Shelf, would cost approximately US $ 5 billion, to be shared by India and Iran. The deep-sea option, that is still technologically suspect, would cost almost as much to build, operate and maintain as the LNG option. 
The overland pipeline option would suit Pakistan too as it would benefit by netting a transit royalty of US $ 700 to 800 million annually, besides getting a regular source of gas with minimal investment. Though this option through Pakistan is economically the most viable, India cannot allow good economics to be jeopardised by bad security. 
India must not allow the supply of a strategic resource to be held hostage to the machinations of capricious Jihadi elements. General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime has stated several times that Pakistan is willing to give a unilateral undertaking that it will not allow the disruption of the supply of gas to India. 
However, General Musharraf has admitted that his government has no control over some Jihadi organisations that are responsible for internal instability in Pakistan. Does his government have the capability to ensure the physical security of a pipeline that runs for almost 1,500 km through Pakistani territory even if it is inclined to do so? 
In addition, the Baloch people are concerned that Pakistan will not equitably share these revenues with their underdeveloped province. A fairly vigorous insurgency has engulfed most of Balochistan and the gas pipeline will be a target. 
The diameter of the gas pipeline would be between 50 to 55 inches. Though such pipelines are mostly buried underground, they are laid just below the surface and their route is well marked to facilitate maintenance, making them prone to easy disruption. The compressor stations that are usually over-ground are also vulnerable to sabotage, though these are easier to guard. 
Any terrorist group or disgruntled individual fanatic, with a medieval mindset, could disrupt the pipeline with a few grams of plastic explosive or a few hundred grams of high explosive – commodities that are available in abundance in Pakistan. In fact, in some areas in Pakistan, explosive charges, detonators and cordite are so freely available that one can buy the stuff from the neighbourhood grocer. Under such circumstances, ensuring the security of the pipeline would be a challenge for the most committed police or paramilitary force. 
The entire length of the pipeline would need to be fenced off on both sides to deny easy access to prospective saboteurs. Since wire fencing can be easily cut, it would need to be kept under electro-optical surveillance throughout its length, combined with continuous physical patrolling. All these measures would cost a massive amount to implement and would still not guarantee 100 per cent security. 
Perhaps a more suitable option would be to form an international consortium of stakeholders to build and operate the pipeline, buy the gas from Iran and deliver it at India’s border. Such a consortium will incur heavy costs to ensure the security of the pipeline. Also, higher insurance costs, opportunity costs and the need to maintain larger strategic reserves might well make the overland option too expensive. 
Perhaps the best option at present is to continue with LNG while simultaneously exploring the possibility of a secure overland route with unimpeachable international guarantees. If India can get gas at the border and has to pay only for what it gets - COD - without sinking its money into capital investment, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline might still be a good option. 
The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.