* Russia used to buy the bulk of Turkmen gas output
* Turkmen gas output stagnates amid low exports to Russia
* Ashgabat seeks alternative routes to bypass Moscow
* Nabucco, TAPI on the map as China-bound exports rise
By Marat Gurt
ASHGABAT, May 31 (Reuters) - Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s largest gas producer and exporter, sold over 10 billion cubic metres (bcm) to Russia in 2010 and can increase that several times over, a Turkmen official said on Tuesday.
“Last year, more than 10 bcm of gas were exported (to Russia). This year, export volumes will not be lower than that,” Bairamgeldy Nedirov, Turkmenistan’s minister of oil, gas and mineral resources, told reporters.
“If the Russian side is ready to increase imports of our natural gas, our (gas) reserves and the capacity of our transportation network allow to raise these volumes and reach the levels that there used to be once.”
Russia, which resells the fuel to Ukraine and further on in Europe, was the main buyer of Turkmen gas before the end of 2009 when Turkmenistan, holder of the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, launched a new, China-bound pipeline.
Russia had used to buy between 40 bcm and 50 bcm of Turkmen gas, the bulk of the country’s annual output of between 70 bcm and 75 bcm at the time.
But supplies fell sharply in 2009 due Europe’s lower demand caused by the global crisis. In April that year, Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM) halted Turkmen gas imports until the start of 2010 after a pipeline blast disrupted flows.
Keen to lessen its dependence on Russia, the country of 5 million has sought to build alternative gas export routes.
New export pipelines will also allow Turkmenistan to realise its ambitious dreams to produce up to 230 bcm of natural gas by 2030 and export 180 bcm.
Industry experts estimate that largely due to lower exports via Russia Turkmenistan’s current annual output is between 40 bcm and 44 bcm.
Turkmenistan, which also sells gas to neighbouring Iran, has said gas supplies to China could rise to 17 bcm in 2011 and 20 bcm in 2012 from more than 4 bcm last year.
Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, whose word is final in the secretive desert nation, has said the country is ready to sell natural gas to Europe via the proposed Nabucco pipeline which would bypass Russia.
“Talks are underway now between the European Commission and Turkmenistan regarding potential exports of our natural gas to Europe,” Nedirov said.
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, conceived in Soviet days, is another project aimed to help diversify export routes.
“In the near time, the participants of the project will sign a gas pricing agreement,” Nedirov said. He gave no time frame.
Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by William Hardy