Part One: Crude Measures

At the Gates of a Global Oil Rush, Turkish Fishermen Threaten a Blockade

 INCIRLI, TURKEY—Standing before his rundown storefront, Sevket Baykan looks toward the sea. Beyond a row of beachside shacks made of particleboard and sheet metal, three tugboats maneuver an Iranian supertanker toward an L-shaped pier.

In a few moments the ship will plug into the BOTAS marine terminal, where a complex network of tubes will feed it 20,000 cubic meters of oil per hour. In roughly a day, the tanker will leave with close to a million barrels' worth of crude in its holds.

The terminal is run by a self-contained community. On a nearby hill, security guards overlook a barbed-wire fence that encompasses pastel apartment buildings, a hospital, mosque, school, movie theater, hotel, beauty salon, and a solar-powered water-heating system.

illustration: Suzanne Allen


Oil, Empire, and Influence in the New Eurasia

Deep beneath the waters of the Caspian Sea lie oil reserves rivaling those of the entire United States. Extracting the crude is one problem; finding a way to bring it to Western markets has been almost impossible. Backed by the U.S. government and a collective of 11 major oil firms, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline will cross mountains, desert wastes, and earthquake zones, while skirting potential battlefields and terrorist hideouts as it covers a distance equivalent to that from New York to Miami.

Construction will begin this spring, officials say, whether American troops invade neighboring Iraq or not. In this series, correspondent Raffi Khatchadourian explores the geography-political, economic, and social-of a conduit for coveted oil.

For now, this oasis of prosperity serves as the downstream portal for nearly half of Iraq's outgoing crude. But in two years' time, the terminal is slated to become the westernmost extreme of the BTC pipeline, a transnational, 1094-mile conduit capable of delivering upward of 350 million barrels a year from the Caspian Sea. Even as American troops gather for a war with next-door Iraq, workers here are preparing for construction almost in the shadow of combat.

Just outside the gates of the terminal lies Incirli, where Baykan has been village leader, or muhtar, for three years. Because the job comes without pay, he also keeps a grocery store. At 3 p.m., there is no business. He locks the door and heads to a nearby teahouse. Twenty young men quickly gather to hear what he has to say.

In Incirli, modernity virtually begins in decay. Oil pipes rust on roadsides. Cacti push in human-sized clusters against rotting edifices. A beat-up satellite dish clings to a corrugated aluminum roof. When the wind shifts, a smell of brine and sulfur wafts ashore.

During his time as muhtar, Baykan has seen resentment spread like pestilence, frustration sting like saltwater on an open wound. "We have no place to farm, no place to graze," he says. "They took those things from us, too."

Life here is edging toward a point of desperation, and the villagers blame their most immediate and powerful neighbor: the marine terminal, run by the state since the 1970s, when Turkey's Gulf of Iskenderun became the destination of two underground pipelines originating in northern Iraq.

For the people of Incirli, it makes little difference where the oil comes from, or goes. Practically no one in the village works at the terminal. Financial compensation for the land it occupies remains locked in lawsuits. Fishing in an extended zone around the pier is forbidden.

With his people destitute, Incirli's regional representative flew to Ankara on January 28 to hand-deliver a list of 118 unemployed villagers—roughly a seventh of the population—to the BTC pipeline company, a group of 11 oil firms that will build and own the $3 billion pipeline.

Some in Incirli hope new jobs await them. The consortium, headed by the Anglo-American oil concern BP, has pledged to visit Incirli in two weeks. Any talks are likely to be fraught, though, since the business of oil requires land and sea, surveyors and engineers, but little unskilled labor. Meanwhile, the villagers are considering ultimatums.

"As a last resort," says Ali Askin, a 24-year-old unemployed automotive technician, "we will be blocking the gates."

For BTC, the anger of a few hundred villagers comes with oversize implications. This energy project has always been larger than a simple tale of a few companies trying to turn a profit. BTC's initials stand for its ambitious international scope: Baku, Tbilisi, Ceyhan, the beginning, middle, and endpoint of one of history's longest and most complexly designed pipelines.

Each of these cities claims its share of intrigue. Located on the Caspian, Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, the birthplace of global oil, a city of past fortunes and barons in the making. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a mountainous former Soviet republic imperfectly stitched together after civil war, and today possibly a redoubt for Al Qaeda militants. Ceyhan is a hardscrabble town just north of Incirli, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a trading post at no comfortable remove from either contested Kurdish land or the border of Iraq.

No one would choose to run 655,000 tons of steel tubing through these places, or at least not anyone who had another choice. One by one, for reasons political and environmental, other possible routes were canceled out, until BTC was left only with the most expensive, tortuous path on the map. The geography alone is forbidding, forcing the underground pipeline to weave through harsh desert, steep vales, and mountains of over 9000 feet.

As the company notes, the project will be "one of the great engineering endeavors of the new millennium." It may also be one of the millennium's great geopolitical endeavors, the culmination of a diplomatic drama that unfolded across the ruins of Soviet collapse for nearly a decade. Arguably, since the end of the Cold War, no single financial venture has more entangled the desires of big business and sovereign states. World powers have contrived to shape the pipeline according to their needs; impoverished countries locked in bitter wars have sought to gain from the prosperity it seems to promise.

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