Four-part essay on the environmental demise of the Caspian Sea
May 30, 2002
Part II: The Folly of Submarine Pipelines
Part I, Part III, Part IV
The Caspian is a marine environment and the transportation of its offshore oil
and gas to processing or loading facilities on the mainland therefore by technical
and economic necessity requires underwater plumbing. There are already some submarine
pipelines in operation, mostly leading to Baku, and a number of others are being
planned there and elsewhere in order to transport the goodies from the adjacent offshore
fields to the Azeri, Kazakh, and Turkmen mainlands. Somehow the image of pipelines,
perched on elevated legs or lying on the sea-bottom, packed with oil and under pressure,
stretching from the source for tens of miles in a sea known for its hairy storms
in the southwest and frozen waters in the north does not sit well with me. A mishap
such as the bursting of a pipeline, a lazy leak, or the collapse of a sinking ship
or platform on top of a submarine pipeline will result in dire consequences for an
already sickly marine environment.
There are many harebrained ideas that litter the Caspian landscape. Most idiotic
among them is the notion that oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, on the eastern
shores of the Caspian, be piped to Baku, on the western coast of the sea, from where
then it will be piped to Georgia and then to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast
for delivery by tankers to the world market, which will be mostly back in the East
-- Never mind the economic folly that underwrites the Baku-Ceyhan line as a matter
of political expediency and the rabid anti-Iranian views of the recent U.S. administrations!
From an environmental standpoint, a mishap anywhere along the hundred miles of submarine
pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Baku will be an unmitigable disaster
for the sea, its living resources, and the human environment that surrounds it.
Be it from Kazakhstan's Tenghiz or Kashakan fields, or from Turkmenistan's shores,
the shortest of a submarine pipeline, from Turkmenbashi, would be about two hundred
miles long, and the longest, from Kazakhstan, will be more than double in length.
Under optimum operating conditions, there will be at any given time two straws fully
loaded with millions of gallons of the gooey and toxic stuff traversing some of the
deepest waters of Caspian to Baku, the bocca, for transport to the point of
discharge at Ceyhan.
Three factors feed the trans-Caspian pipeline frenzy. First, the economics of the
Baku-Ceyhan line is such that in order to make the line an investment success it
needs more through-put oil than Azerbaijan's own fields can produce from the Caspian.
Therefore, in the autumn of 2001 the president of Kazakhstan went on the record to
state that his country will pick up the slack and have Kazakh oil pumped through
the Baku-Ceyhan line. To get the oil to Baku from Kazakhstan one could ship it by
tanker, a cost-prohibitive exercise, or send it by land, pipe or rail, around the
Caspian, which is also very cost-prohibitive, or effect a trade or swap of oil among
various parties and suppliers. The best and economical way therefore would be to
send the Kazakh oil by way of a trans-Caspian submarine pipeline, from Kashagan or
Tenghiz to Baku.
The Baku-Turkmenistan pipeline itself has been on the drawing boards since February
1999, when the Turkmen government entered into an agreement with General Electric
and Bechtel Group for the construction of the line connecting Turkmanbashi to Baku,
across the southern Caspian, with all of its stormy weather conditions and problems
of its deep rifts and valleys, sometime two-thirds of a mile deep. Iran and Russia
objected to this scheme as environmentally unsound but, truth be told, any pipeline
that proposes an alternative to an Iran-bound or trans-Russian route meets Iranian
and Russian objections! Therefore, predictably, the U.S. envoy at the time, Richard
Morningstar, immediately came out in favor of the Baku-Turkmanbashi line. However,
the unsettled offshore boundary lines and Azeri-Turkmen dispute over a number of
oilfields in the southern Caspian, Russian pressures, and Iranian saber-rattling
have combined to prevent the scheme from going forward.
The second factor which rationalizes the trans-Caspian submarine pipeline relates
to the U.S. stance in the region, which is informed by three desires: first, to ensure
the dubious economic viability of the Baku-Ceyhan line as a favor to Turkey and Azerbaijan,
two staunch U.S. clients; second, to keep the Kazakh oil from relying heavily on
exit routes that go through Russia and perhaps China some day; and third, to further
minimize the necessity for exit routes going through Iran. The Iranian option makes
most economic sense for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but it is disfavored by the
United States because of the Irano-American imbroglio over other issues. Moreover,
an Iranian route would kill off the Baku-Ceyhan's prospects with untold political
damage to the U.S. prestige in Ankara and Baku. Ankara, for its part, tempered its
earlier desire for an Irano-Turkish energy cooperation program on the promise of
U.S. political and financial support for the Baku-Ceyhan line.
The third factor that promotes the trans-Caspian pipeline is the desire of Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan themselves to diversify their exit routes for their oil and gas.
They both favor Iran in their export strategies and recently the president of Kazakhstan
restated his preference for the Iranian option to the visiting U.S. Secretary of
State in early December 2001 and again to President Bush when visiting Washington
in late December 2001. Regardless, as long as the Iran-Persian Gulf route is off
the table and politically unfeasible, the submarine trans-Caspian pipeline will be
a likely possibility.
Mirfendereski is the author of A
Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (New York and London: Palgrave,
2001). The author acknowledges the material available on www.eia.doe.gov,
www.caspianstudies.com, and www.savecaspiansea.com.
This piece is being published contemporaneously in IranFile (London: June