By Nane Atshemian
Armenia braced itself for a potentially serious energy crisis on Tuesday amid reports that repair work on the main Russian pipeline providing it and neighboring Georgia with natural gas will take longer than was expected.
The ArmRosGazprom (ARG) national gas operator warned that it will have to cut supplies to business customers if it becomes clear that the pipeline, wrecked by two explosions in southern Russia on Sunday, will not be restored by Friday.
“They say that the pipeline repair will be complete on January 27,” ARG spokeswoman Shushan Sardarian told RFE/RL. “If they finish the job on time, we will not resort to any [supply] limitations. We will do that only if things drag on.”
Russia’s Gazprom monopoly, which owns 45 percent of ARG, initially pledged to complete repairs on the damaged section of the pipeline early this week. However, they were reportedly suspended on Tuesday, ostensibly due to a cold weather and a leak of gas condensate.
"An explosion may occur if welding is conducted now. For this reason all workers repairing the pipeline have been taken to safety," Vladimir Ivanov, an official from Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying. “Gas condensate is still leaking.”
The head of a Russian company repairing the damage from the blasts in the Caucasus republic of North Ossetia told Interfax that these problems “will delay the repairs by 100 hours or maybe more.”
According to Sardarian, if this information is officially confirmed by the Russian side ARG will likely cut supplies to vehicle filling stations and industrial enterprises “starting from tomorrow.” She said there are no plans yet to introduce gas rationing for individual consumers. “We are doing everything to ensure that the population remains unaffected by this problem,” she said.
ARG has tapped its emergency reserves to keep up supplies to some 400,000 households and thermal power plants that generate than one third of Armenia’s electricity. Its main underground storage facility north of Yerevan contained 80 million cubic meters of gas when the Russian pipeline was knocked out in the early hours of Sunday. Officials would not says just when the country will run out of its reserves if Russian supplies are not restored soon.
The Russian-Armenian joint venture has already reduced supplies to the Hrazdan power plant that exports its electricity surplus to Georgia. Those exports were halted immediately after the Russian blasts. The gas operator has also urged Armenians to use gas for heating their homes more sparingly. But ARG has so far reported only a slight decrease in gas consumption.
This has apparently to do with a continuing cold snap that hit Armenia last week. Its has been aggravated by unusually heavy snowfalls that have going on since Friday.
The situation was even more difficult in Georgia where authorities restricted gas and power supplies to the population. It improved considerably on Monday as gas began flowing into Georgia via an alternative pipeline passing through Azerbaijan.
Georgian leaders alleges that the supply cutoff was a deliberate act of sabotage by Russia aimed at punishing Tbilisi for its pro-Western policies. Russia has vehemently denied the charges. The Armenian government, which maintains closer ties with Moscow, has so far been silent on the issue.
Meanwhile, it emerged that the U.S. government intervened to help prevent an energy crisis in the two South Caucasus states. "We did talk to the parties that were involved in the issue over the weekend," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told
reporters in Washington on Monday, adding there were "a lot of phone calls."
The AFP news agency quoted him as saying the American officials involved included Dan Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, his deputy Matthew Bryza, and U.S. diplomats in Georgia. "Regardless right now what the cause of the explosions were, what is important is that Georgia and Armenia's neighbors came together to come to their neighbors' aid in a time of crisis," McCormack said. "And we played a role in that, proudly so."
(GI-Photolur photo: Workers fix on Monday the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline near the village of Nizhni Lars in North Ossetia a day after it was destroyed by two blasts.)