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With Nuclear Deal, India Looks to Iran for Natural Gas

Technology and geopolitics are driving ambitious deep-sea projects to provide clean energy to parts of the world that desperately need it.

Rapid advances in undersea technology, along with big geopolitical shifts, are opening up new fuel sources for energy-starved India. With the conclusion of an agreement between Iran and six major powers to limit Iran’s nuclear arms capacity, there’s new momentum for at least one major project that would link consumers in India to producers in the Middle East: the construction of an ultra-deepwater natural gas pipeline across the Arabian Sea, from Iran to India’s west coast.

Known as the SAGE pipeline (for South Asia Gas Enterprises Ltd., the Indian company leading the project) or the Middle East to India Deepwater Pipeline (MEIDP), the trans-Arabian pipeline would be one of the longest and deepest oil or gas pipelines ever built, running for 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) at depths of more than two miles underwater. Projected to cost $4.5 billion, the new pipeline would bring 1.1 billion standard cubic feet of gas a day to India, roughly doubling the country’s gas imports and bringing much-needed energy to the country.

India, which today gets about 70 percent of its electricity from coal, is desperately seeking cleaner sources of energy. And the undersea route would bypass the land route across Pakistan, India’s neighbor and hereditary foe. An Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline has been talked about for years but has never materialized.  

The nuclear agreement between Iran and the so-called “P5+1” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany) “definitely increases the chances of the MEIDP being built on a fast track, for completion by 2018-19,” says Subodh Kumar Jain, the Delhi-based director of SAGE, in an e-mail.  Jain indicates funding is in place for front-end engineering design studies and detailed seafloor surveys to precisely map the pipeline route.

The Iran-India pipeline would join a half-dozen or so major undersea pipelines that will carry natural gas from producing regions to expanding markets, including a planned South Texas to Veracruz, Mexico, route and the Ichthys Export Pipeline, from the offshore Ichthys field in the Timor Sea, to Western Australia. The modern era of natural gas pipelines began with the 1,500-mile Trans-Mediterranean pipeline, which carries gas from Algeria through Tunisia and crosses the Mediterranean to Sicily and southern Italy, and which was completed in the mid-1980s. That project required the building of a specialized open-water pipe-laying platform, the Castoro Sei.

But ultra-deepwater pipelines have only become possible in the last decade or so, with the development of new seafloor mapping technologies, huge deep-sea pipe-laying vessels, and undersea robots or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can carry out construction, repair, and maintenance tasks at tremendous depths. This new era of ultra-deepwater projects began with the Langeled route, from Norway to the east coast of England (completed in 2006), the Medgaz project from Algeria to southern Spain (2011), and the Nord Stream Pipeline, which runs 760 miles from Russia across the Baltic Sea to Germany (2012). Piped gas is usually cheaper than natural gas transported by tanker, which must be liquefied for transport and then reprocessed at the destination terminal.

The Iran-India pipeline, however, would face unique technical challenges. For one thing, most of the pipelines named above run relatively close to shore, easing the challenges of construction, repair, and resupply. The Iran-India route is hundreds of miles out to sea—and it runs across an underwater fault line associated with the Owen Fracture Zone, an active seismic area.

What’s more, there are only a handful of ships and deep-sea craft capable of pulling off such a feat of engineering—and they are likely to be busy elsewhere, on projects more certain to be built. Nevertheless, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has made diversifying India’s energy sources a high priority since taking office last year. During the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization earlier this month, Modi met with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to discuss various ways to deepen ties between the two countries, including increased oil and gas imports and Indian investment in the Chabahar port, on Iran’s southern coast, where the SAGE pipeline would originate.

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