The Oman Gas Pipeline: India’s Underwater Energy Supply Chain

05 May, 2014    ·   4421

Dr Vijay Sakhuja argues that the Oman-India Pipeline project offers more than just an alternative supply of energy

Energy hungry India has invested enormous political and diplomatic capital in gas pipelines such as the Iran-Pakistan-India IPI and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipelines, from Iran and Turkmenistan. However, these projects have been mired in problems of insecurity and cost.  Plans to build the IPI have been shelved and the TAPI is still on the drawing board. Similarly, in 2003, a pipeline project to transport gas from Iran to India was explored but did not fructify due to high construction and transportation costs.  The focus has shifted to the Oman-India Pipeline (OIP) which would run below the sea across the Arabian Sea. Iran is now being included in the pipeline network and there are plans to build an energy corridor to link Turkmenistan. The underwater supply route is expected to eliminate potential vulnerabilities arising from attacks or hijacking of pipelines by subversive elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to ensure uninterrupted supply of gas to India.

The OIP project was first mooted in 1999. The two sides signed an agreement for the supply of 56.6 million cubic meters (MCM) of natural gas through the 1,130 kilometer undersea pipeline across the Arabian Sea to be built at a cost of $5 billion. The seabed survey had revealed that the initial route of the pipeline would be via complex and rugged seabed terrain and that there were ‘faulted up thrusts’ enroute which would pose difficulties in the smooth and level laying of the pipeline. A new route was explored which was marginally shorter, but the technological capacity – including the lack of ships to lay pipes at 3500 meter depths,  and pipeline repair systems –  for deep sea pipe laying was unavailable then.

Today, the OIP project has reemerged and aims to push forwards given the existence of improved deepwater design and pipe laying technology. It will be developed by a global consortium of highly experienced designers who would execute the project using modern pipe laying techniques, systems, processes and service providers.  Perhaps what is more significant is that Iran has indicated its willingness to join the project and transport gas from its South Pars gas fields to India via the undersea pipeline. Earlier this year, the foreign ministers of Iran, Oman and India met and held negotiations on the issue of Iran-Oman-India (IOI) gas grid.

According to a study conducted by the South Asia Gas Enterprise Pvt. Ltd. (SAGE), the 1400 kilometer long IOI pipeline would cost $ 4-5 billion and would transport 31 MCM of gas daily. Meanwhile, Iran is willing to ship gas from Turkmenistan and facilitate linking that route to the IOI pipeline. This could potentially result in India shelving the TAPI project.

These developments are indeed noteworthy and offer a ray of hope for India to enhance its energy security; perhaps it is also the most economical method of supply. However, there are several challenges to underwater pipelines, arising from natural and manmade hazards. Furthermore, underwater pipelines are ‘poorly armoured, rarely patrolled and occasionally monitored’ and therefore require inspection and repair capabilities which are expensive to source.

There are three potential threats the pipelines will have to face: First arises from natural catastrophic events such as underwater earthquakes and Tsunamis. Although the pipes can withstand some ground shaking, severe conditions could result in ruptures and/or damages, resulting in the seepage of gas – thus causing potential environmental disasters.

The second type of threat would be posed by anchors of the ships in shallow waters. Although undersea pipelines and cables are marked in nautical charts, there have been instances when pipelines have been damaged.

The third threat arises from the wear-tear of pipes due to ageing. Although these underwater pipelines are designed to last for at least 30 to 40 years, material fatigue due to seawater corrosion can considerably reduce their durability. Furthermore, there are issues of pipelines that have been set aside following the completion of their operational life; these pipes in disuse can cause enormous environmental damage, which in turn requires expensive and difficult clean-up efforts. 

Inspection and repair of undersea pipelines is a complex issue and poses a number of operational challenges. This would require underwater laser scanning systems, and CAD software to generate 3D models of the damaged/leaking pipes to carry out repair without risks to humans, among others. Iran and India have underwater operational experience and possess platforms such as submarines, but neither has the experience or technology for seabed operations.

There is an opportunity for Oman, India and Iran to develop leak detection, prevention and clean-up practices, as well as to develop manned and unmanned systems that could potentially boost their underwater platform industry.