Case for a MAD Pipeline

After years of discussion, it seems the plan to lay a mammoth gas pipeline from Oman to India is on its way out. The Omanese minister for industry has expressed doubts about the technical feasibility of the pipeline, and so have many Indian experts, since it will go through deeper water than any pipeline ever built. The cost at $ 5 billion is very high. and internal financing is uncertain. We need to look for alternatives.

Not enough people know that in the coming years, India and Pakistan are going to become two of the biggest importers of energy in the world. Geological prospects for finding additional oil and gas in both countries are very limited. Meanwhile economic growth in the two continues at around 6 per cent per year, and energy demand will rise even faster. India can trim its need for imported energy through better harnessing of its coal and hydro-power, but in any event it will have to import enormous quantities of energy in the next century. So will Pakistan.

Of the three main fuels—gas, oil and coal gas is in some ways the most attractive. It is the cleanest, least polluting of the three. It is available in enormous quantities at reasonable prices. It can be transported more cheaply than coal or oil through pipelines. Power stations and fertilizer plants based on gas are cheaper to build than those based on liquid or solid fuels. This is the only reason why India is looking at a very expensive and technically tricky pipeline from Oman.

All experts agree that the cheapest option would be an overland gas pipeline from Iran running through Pakistan to India, serving both countries. Iran has much more spare gas than Oman. However, Indian defence experts refuse to look at such a pipeline, since Pakistan will be able to turn off supplies to India whenever it wants. International guarantees can reduce, but not eliminate the chances of such a cut-off. Pakistan is currently insisting on such an alignment, which will assure its own gas supplies while giving it a stranglehold over supplies to India.

An alternative is to lay a gas pipeline from Iran to India offshore. But this too will pass through Pakistan’s territorial waters, so Indian defence experts are not enthusiastic. They say Pakistani submarines can easily blow up such a pipeline in the event of a war. However, if indeed there is a war, Pakistani submarines can equally easily blow up a pipeline from Oman, which will be too large and long to be protect able. So why spend enormous sums on the false notion that such a pipeline is secure?

A pipeline from Iran will probably cost half as much as the proposed Oman pipeline. We need to think of ways to make such a pipeline acceptable to both countries.

I would like to make one such proposal, based on a pipeline running through Pakistan’s territorial waters. The landing point of this pipeline should be exactly at the Indo-Pakistan border in Kutch. From the landing point, one branch will take off into Pakistan and the other into India.

In such an arrangement, Pakistan will have no incentive to block or blow up the offshore pipeline, since this will cut off its own gas supply. Pakistan will not be able to damage India without damaging itself. For the same reason, India too has no incentive to block the flow to Pakistan. In this lies mutual security.

A variation of the same idea has been proposed by some experts. They suggest that the gas should be fed to a giant power station in India and Pakistan should have a share of this electricity. Here again Pakistan would be unable to hurt India unilaterally. However, Pakistan would rather control its own power plants. A pipeline with two separate branches for the two countries looks a cleaner arrangement than the sharing of power station (which in any case can account for only a very limited amount of imported gas).

If a pipeline of 30 million cubic metres (mcm) per day is built, the probable division between the two countries will be 12 mcm for Pakistan and 18 mcm for India. Some people fear this will leave India more vulnerable than Pakistani terms of gas. But Pakistan has much smaller economy than India and will be less able to withstand cut-off.

In the event of a war, neither country will need to blow up the expensive undersea pipeline. Instead they will blow up the overland pipelines at the Kutch border. This will be a case of mutually assured destruction (MAD). It’ be quite different from, and where near as scary as the MAD doctrine governing the nuclei balance between superpower during the Cold War. But both reflect the logic of security from from mutuality.

Islamabad will obviously be less keen on a MAD pipeline than the overland one from Iran. So in the foreseeable future no agreement may be possible. However, as Pakistan’s needs of gas multiply, it will need to think seriously about cheap and bulk supplies. And a giant pipeline serving both countries will be the cheapest bulk source. Today, a MAD pipeline may seem premature. But within a few years it might just become idea whose time has come.

What do you think?