Siberia-West Europe pipeline is complete, but will it carry gas?

Pavel Sokolov looked proudly at the shiny silver pipelines snaking along the ground and led a group of visiting Americans past the whirling turbines of the compressor station.

Mr. Sokolov couldn't help boasting just a little. Despite an attempt by President Reagan to halt work on the Siberia-Western Europe gas pipeline, the project was completed in a year - six months ahead of plan.

''Reagan said he would stop our work, but we said we'd do it in any case - and we did,'' said Sokolov, who directed the construction of 1,980 miles of the pipeline.

Pomary, once nothing more than an obscure rail siding 400 miles northeast of Moscow, has found itself in the spotlight of the pipeline controversy. It lies at the midpoint of the 2,759-mile line, which stretches from the Urengoi gas fields in northern Siberia to the town of Uzhgorod on the Czechoslovakian border. The only completed compressor station of the 41 planned for the project is located in Pomary.

Soviet workers who met with recent visitors in Pomary were obviously proud of their work and confident that the gas would flow to Western Europe in January, as provided for in the original contract.

President Reagan's embargo may have inconven-ienced Soviet planners for a brief period last year by making it difficult to get parts for the $18 billion Urengoi-Uzhgorod pipeline. But the embargo did not halt work entirely, nor did it prevent other nations from selling equipment to the Soviets and providing technical assistance.

Spokesmen in Pomary said Mr. Reagan's attempt to halt the project made workers even more determined to finish it on time.

The pipeline is truly a multinational project. At Pomary, the compressor station's control panel is stamped with the red and white logo of the General Electric Company. Its turbines were designed in the United States and manufactured by an Italian firm.

Finland supplied the building that houses the turbines, Britain supplied the electrical equipment, Japan provided the valves. Finnish, West German, Italian, and French technicians worked side by side with their Soviet counterparts on the project. The 53-inch pipe used on the line was purchased from West Germany and Japan.

In June the Soviets announced the completion of the line, which will run through several time zones, under 800 waterways, across swamps, ice fields, forestland, and over the Ural and Carpathian mountain ranges.

Called ''the deal of the century'' when the Soviets first signed the contracts to build the line, it could deliver up to 20 billion cubic meters of Soviet gas every year - enough to provide energy for 40 million people.

Initial deliveries, however, will amount to about 3.3 billion cubic meters of gas for France and West Germany next year. Switzerland and Austria are expected to receive deliveries in the late 1980s, and Italy is negotiating a contract for up to 6 billion cubic meters of gas annually later in the decade.

The only question now is whether the gas will flow through the Urengoi-Uzhgorod line or through two parallel pipelines now being used to deliver Siberian gas to points in the Soviet Union for domestic use. Western businessmen have said the Soviets will not be able to deliver gas through the Urengoi-Uzhgorod line with only one working compressor station.

''It's a little like trying to suck water through a straw from a glass on the other side of a room - it just won't work,'' a dubious Western diplomat said.

The huge task remains of constructing 40 more compressor stations, each containing three massive 25-megawatt turbines. Spokesmen for the Soviet Oil and Gas Ministry said perhaps 20 stations would be completed this year, but they acknowledge that at present only two other than the Pomary station are close to completion.

But they said that they could divert pumping power from some old compressor stations where the line runs toward Czechoslovakia.

Despite their assurances that the Reagan embargo did not interfere with the delivery schedule, they agreed that it prolonged construction by two months and boosted labor costs. The embargo also stirred up some anti-American sentiments among the Soviet workers on the project, Sokolov said.

''For us, the boycott was unpleasant because we lost a trading partner,'' he said.

''Reagan's action created a greater initiative among our crews to finish the project, and it brought us closer to the nations who continued to supply us with parts.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.