Pipeline Repairs Drag on as US Intervenes in Caucasus Energy Crisis

(Combined Sources)–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 expected. The pipeline was destroyed by two explosions in southern Russia on Sunday.

Russia–with the help of Azerbaijan–partly restored the flow of natural gas to Georgia on Monday using an alternate pipeline to carry gas to Georgia. The gas–some from Azeri reserves–was mingled with increased flow from Russia and sent along to Georgia.

In spite of the renewed flow of gas–much of it sent from Russia through Azerbaijan while technicians worked to repair the machinery–Georgia experienced a day with little heat and scattered electrical blackouts.

Armenia–which has larger emergency gas reserves than Georgia–has tapped into those to keep up supplies to some 400,000 households and thermal power plants that generate more 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 say just when the country will run out of its reserves if Russian supplies are not restored soon–but they warned that it will have to cut gas supplies to business customers if it becomes clear that the pipeline will not be restored by Friday.

"They say that the pipeline repair will be complete on January 27," said Shushan Sardarian–spokeswoman for Armenia’s national gas operator–ArmRosGazprom (ARG). "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 gas leak.

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 most likely cut supplies to vehicle filling stations and industrial enterprises starting Wednesday. 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.

The Russian-Armenian joint venture has also urged Armenia’s to use gas for heating their homes more sparingly. But ARG has so far reported only a slight decrease in gas consumption.

This apparently has to do with the extreme cold weather that hit Armenia last week that has been aggravated by unusually heavy snowfall since Friday.

Meanwhile–the US government intervened to help prevent an energy crisis in region. "We did talk to the parties that were involved in the issue over the weekend," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Monday.

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 US diplomats in Georgia. "Regardless right now what the cause[s] of the explosions were–what is important is that Georgia and Armenia’s neighbors? [have] come to their neighbors’ aid in a time of crisis," McCormack said. "And we played a role in that–proudly so."

Georgian leaders allege 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 has so far been silent on the issue.

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