EU energy boss Maros Sefcovic said late Thursday Europe could import natural gas from ex-Soviet Turkmenistan via Iran as Brussels ramps up efforts to break its dependence on Russian-sourced energy.
Speaking after a meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in the capital Ashgabat,Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission for Energy Union, also said he expected that imports of Turkmen gas via a pipeline built under the Caspian sea could begin as soon as 2019.
Sefcovic said the two had discussed the "possibility of building a pipeline through the Caspian as well as through Iran, since diplomatic relations with Iran are developing positively".
"The EU hopes that negotiations between the big six and Iran conclude successfully," he added, speaking in comments aired on Turkmen state television late on Thursday night.
Officials in Iran, which shares the inland Caspian sea with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, have repeatedly said the Trans-Caspian pipeline is uneconomic and that building a land-based pipeline transiting the sanctions-struck Gulf state would be a better option.
But with talks over Iran's nuclear programme involving the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany hanging in the balance ahead of a June 30 deadline, Sefcovic stressed the Caspian link.
The pipeline could cost upwards of $5 billion and would funnel gas under the disputed sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan before connecting with the existing South Caucasus pipeline and the planned Trans-Anatolian pipeline through Turkey.
"The European Union expects natural gas supplies from the Caspian region to Europe to begin in 2019-2020," Sefcovic said.
He added that environmental risks connected to the proposed pipeline could be mitigated.
In addition to Iran, the Trans-Caspian pipeline would face opposition from Russia, which met around a third of the EU's gas needs in 2014.
Currently it is planned that the Trans-Caspian pipeline would transport up to 30 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas per year to the EU.
No blueprint exists as yet for a pipeline transiting Turkmen gas through Iran, although EU commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Canete confirmed it was being considered as a supplier in plans for "southern corridors" that bypass Russia.
Turkmenistan, which borders Iran, has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world but suffers from a lack of pipeline infrastructure.
The Central Asian country currently supplies around half of China's total natural gas consumption through a pipeline built by the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) that began shipping gas in 2010.
CNPC says it plans to import 65 bcm of natural gas annually from Turkmenistan by 2020.