Caspian quartet III

Part III: Limits of Techno-bravado



Petroleum engineers swear by the safety of underwater pipelines and the environmental friendliness of the platforms that are used for offshore drilling and extraction. Nor is the turbulent weather in southern Caspian a problem, after all, the engineers gloat, the Caspian experience will benefit from the technology and lessons learned in the turbulent North Sea theater. O, really! Consider the following two episodes as recent examples of how nature tends to humble techno-bravado.

On December 3, 2001, a 6,347-ton oil-drilling rig, called the
Key Singapore, which was owned and operated by Global Santa Fe, an American company and the world's second-largest offshore oil and natural gas driller, was set adrift in the rough seas off Egypt. A day later, the rig appeared off Tel Aviv, listing and in danger of breaking up. On the second they of its wandering about it was harnessed and towed back to Egypt. The rescue of the rig's 84-man crew was accomplished through the intervention of an Italian frigate, the American frigate USS
Ross, two British naval helicopters, and a Cypriot police helicopter.

Mercifully, the
Key Singapore was not a production platform. The fabled
Petrobas 36, however, was a production platform and it sits now on the floor of the Campos Basin, some 4,400 feet deep and 78 miles off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Once resting on four legs atop the Roncador oilfield, the virile semi-submersible rig stood 40-stories high, and weighed 33,000 tonnes. It was the largest offshore oil rig in the universe. It could produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day, but it was producing only 8,000 barrels per day when humility struck.

On March 15, 2001, a pesky series of blasts, which were attributed to gas leaks, damaged one of the support columns. The rig began to list and soon was tilting at an angel twice as crooked as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Efforts to stabilize the rig consisted of pumping some 4,100 tons of nitrogen into its pontoons and other hallow structures, but this bought only enough time to get some rescue equipment to the site and try to pump out the oil that was stored on board. On March 20, the rig gracefully disappeared from view.

According to Petrobas, Brazil's national oil company, the rig had at the time some 316,000 gallons of diesel on board, as well as 79,000 gallons of crude oil, while some 21 oil and gas bearing pipelines joined the rig from the various wells. Damage to any of the pipelines or the shutters of the underwater wells could have produced a first rate environmental disaster. This time, more luck than brawn saved the day; reportedly, vessels managed to collect some 400,000 gallons of oil, the oil wells on the ocean floor were capped, but leaving behind a drifting oil slick that could not be contained because of the rough seas. In January 2000, a Petrobas pipeline in Rio's scenic bay ruptured and sent some 340,000 gallons of crude spilling into the waters, wreaking havoc with the delicate mangroves, and the populations of birds and fish.

Sadly, those who help in the cleaning up of oil spills themselves are often at risk. The case of the
Exxon Valdez spill is illustrative. This oil tanker ran aground off Alaska in April 1989 and spewed some 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, causing the death of some 250,000 birds, 2,800 otters, 300 harbor seals, and countless fish. Many of those who worked on that spill experienced nausea, headaches, chemical burns, and breathing problems. In the long-run many found oil traces in their lungs, blood, and fatty tissue of their buttocks. There is evidence of an
Exxon Valdez syndrome among the workers, but just like the [Persian] Gulf War syndrome or the Agent Orange syndrome, the U.S. government is not quick to recognize it.

The official view in the United States is that in the case of emergencies involving crude oil, worker safety against toxicity is best safeguarded with the use of personal protective equipment, training, and oversight. There is no reason to believe that any of the Caspian governments and their foreign oil partners can or will ward off a potential disaster like
Petrobas 36 or put into place a safe clean-up operation in the case of a major spill. The infrastructure simply does not exist for lofty goals such as ensuring technical integrity of platforms, pipelines, couplings and shutters, for environmental impact studies, prevention, crisis management, clean-up, and compensation. Worse yet, the constipation of the littoral governments on this score finds its metaphor in the fact that the Caspian is landlocked, and any sea-borne disaster here will have to rely on local readiness and standby equipment and vessels in the case of a crisis. Good luck!

Furthermore, there is a Caspian feature that neither the Campos Basin or the North Sea shares: earthquakes, lots of them, strong ones and often. Because of this unrelenting phenomenon a massive oil and gas disaster in the Caspian is only a matter of time, not likelihood. Consider the following record: on November 25, 2000, a quake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale shook up Baku. The epicenter of the quake was located at 15 miles off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea, where it measured 6.6 on the scale. The tremors were felt as far north as Daghestan, and as far west as Georgia, where they measured at 2.0 to 3.0 on the Richter.

On December 6, 2000, around 10 p.m., a quake measuring 7.2 to 7.4 on the scale rocked Ashgabat for some two minutes. Its tremors were felt as far west as Balkanabad and Kazanzhik, where 80% of the Turkmen oil is produced, and at Baku, where it measured 4.5. The tremors were also felt as far north as southern Russia, some 1,200 miles away, with weaker tremors registering farther north in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Eastward, the tremors were felt as far as Tashkent, Bukhara and Smargand. The epicenter of this quake was located some 500 miles west of Ashgabat, smack dab in the middle of the southern basin of the Caspian Sea. A quake of comparable size had shaken up Ashgabat in 1948 and claimed 45,000 to 100,000 lives.

On February 18, 2001, a quake centered at Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, stirred up a 3.0 rumbling that was felt around the Daghestani coast at a radius of 40 miles. In August, another quake, measuring 5.4, struck northwest Turkey. In October 2001, a quake measuring about 4.0 shook the Talesh highland area in northwest Iran on the Caspian shore. In November, another quake, measuring 4.4, hit northern Iran on the Caspian littoral in the Gorgan/Golestan province. Recently, in December 2001, the ground in northern Iran, on the Caspian coast, once again shook to the rhythm of a 3.6 quake.

Engineers sneer at the suggestion that earthquakes will bust open crude- and gas-laden pipes. After all, they point out, nuclear power plants have been built and are operating safely in earthquake-prone regions of the world for decades. Their point is well taken except there is a limit to such techno-bravado. Can the same be said of any facility in operation, nuclear or otherwise, that is 200 to 400 miles in length? Which is also under tons of water pressure, negotiating the ups and downs and the various depths of the sea-floor, meandering through various temperature zones?

Part IV

(To be published in a week)




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,, and This piece is being published contemporaneously in
IranFile (London: June 2002.)

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