Uzbekistan's first ever gas-to-liquids plant has started the commissioning of some facilities as the operator looks to get the project schedule back track following delays after worker evacuations last year due to the spread of Covid-19.

The facility in the Kashkadarya region is the most expensive industrial project in the country's history since it gained independence from what was the Soviet Union in 1991.

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It will convert excess natural gas, produced at reduced cost in Uzbekistan, into motor fuels that the landlocked country currently has to import from Russia and other neighbours.

Uzbekistan decided to proceed with this long-discussed, expensive solution in a bid to increase energy independence in a policy embarked on following the election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as President in 2016.

Technically, the plant passed the 95% completion benchmark at the end of March, operator Uzbekistan GTL said.

However, some of its supporting units — providing electric power, water supply and steam — have been put into operation in anticipation of start-up of the remaining facilities, it said.

Once all supporting units are up and running, the operator may commission the main gas processing facilities and conversion reactors.

Building contractors are still keeping over 9000 people on the construction site to ensure the progress, the operator said.

Major commissioning efforts are scheduled to begin in the second half of this year, provided that measures to control possible transmission of Covid-19 among workers on site remain effective, it added.

Construction efforts at the plant came to standstill in the middle of last year after rising numbers of Covid-19 infections prompted the evacuation of thousands of workers.

Construction of the GTL plant barely progressed during the 2020 summer months, but 12,000 builders were brought back to the site in September at the behest of authorities in the capital, Tashkent.

Additionally, the push from authorities to move faster with the project met with resistance from workers who staged a protest in October over prolonged shifts.

Meanwhile, state oil and gas producer Uzbekneftegaz has put into operation a dedicated pipeline from the neighbouring Shurtan gas polymer plant that will deliver feedstock gas to the GTL plant.

Despite a major interruption to the pace of construction last year, the operator said that it expects a minor downward adjustment of construction costs of the GTL project before the plant is put into operation.

Construction costs were already reduced by $120 million to $3.61 billion in 2018 after talks between project shareholder Uzbekneftegaz and contractors, South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering, Hyundai Engineering & Construction and Uzbek-owned Enter Engineering.

When brought to full capacity, the GTL plant is set to process about 3.6 billion cubic metres per annum of gas into motor fuels. The gas is produced at the Shurtan field in Uzbekistan and purified at the Shurtan gas polymer plant to increase the share of methane in feedstock gas.