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By Jon Campbell
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The pipeline's route from Azerbaijan to Turkey: No one would choose to run 655,000 tons of steel tubing through these places, or at least not anyone who had another choice.
In the pipeline's vicinity, American soldiers are training proxies to hunt terrorists. Every year, adventurers bump along its path in boxy IMZ motorcycles. Thieves, kidnappers, and saboteurs live within sight of its route. Angry villagers, such as the ones at Incirli, are fighting to protect their turf. Working amid them all are some of the world's largest oil firms.
With land staked and piping shipped, issues of financial and political feasibility have given way to the kind of questions that always attend global commerce. What effect will the pipeline have on the unsettled societies hosting it? How will local economies handle the avalanche of capital that will flow through the Caucasus and Central Asia? Who will make sure the public money involved is used to benefit the public?
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.
"We recognize that the BTC pipeline will be a global project," says Selahittin Soylu, the Incirli representative. "Of course, Turkey will benefit from it, and it is in Turkey's national interest to support it. The village would like to support the project, too, and in turn be supported."
If war does come to Iraq, just over the border from Turkey, construction on the pipeline will continue, pressed forward by companies whose sense of time is nearly geologic. Years before Operation Desert Storm got under way, or the Soviet Union fell, a handful of Western oilmen with reputations as risk-takers scouted the shores of Azerbaijan, looking for new deposits of crude. Some of the largest Caspian Sea fields won't be tapped for years to come. The pipeline is set to have a life span of four decades, longer if need be.
Whether bombs rain on Baghdad four months from now, or four years from now, or never, it will not change the fact that roughly 3 to 4 percent of the world's proven oil reserves are hidden beneath the brackish waters of the Caspian, and that someone will bring it to the global oil bazaar. For the industry, the question is less when, or how, than who?
Governments also operate on extended timelines. Over the past decade, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the United States have struggled with the riddle of landlocked Caspian crude. A late-'90s CIA map of the Eurasian landmass showed different-colored lines crisscrossing an area extending from Europe to China, from northern Siberia to the Persian Gulf. Some were existing routes, such as a jagged red scratch that represented the so-called Baku-Supsa pipeline, cutting westward from Azerbaijan to a Georgian port on the Black Sea. Others were proposed passages, fat pink lines such as one that expressed an option favored by some oil companies: a pipeline that would channel Caspian oil into the Iranian grid. Still others were pure fantasy, taken seriously by only a few, such as a green line representing a way to ship natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and beyond.
Since the idea of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export route was conceived (no one now can agree on when or where it began), the U.S. government has worked to make it reality. America's intent: to crack Moscow's monopoly on export lines, to further isolate Iran, to strengthen the independence of several post-Soviet states, and to foster an "East-West corridor" of trade and security alliances.
At various times, wild speculation that the region could contain as much oil as the Persian Gulf fueled these objectives. Experts now figure the Caspian Sea contains perhaps 30 billion barrels; Saudi Arabia's reserves alone are almost 10 times larger. Nevertheless, Caspian crude is still significant, and the United States is still playing a role, albeit much more quietly, in ensuring the oil will be extracted and shipped in a way that maximizes Washington's leverage over the region.
As one high-level State Department official explained when asked about the BTC route, "What's this about? It's not about money or molecules. I think, in a fundamental sense, it's about the strategic geography of Central Asia."
To reach Ceyhan, one must pass through the Turkish lowlands, where tall eucalyptus trees cluster in scattered, half-moon formations among basalt boulders, scrub grass, and extinct volcanoes. Here, Alexander the Great dealt a crushing victory in 333 B.C. to the Persians; today it is not hard to imagine this territory as the frontier of a new empire. Roughly 30 miles inland, the Turkish Incirlik air base hosts the screaming American fighter squadrons that have enforced the UN no-fly zones over northern Iraq for 12 years.
Empire, of course, is a big idea. It is coincidental that a Turkish base hosting the United States Air Force rests side by side with the terminus of Washington's favored pipeline route. But in a larger sense, oil, war, and the reach of American power have become inextricably linked. By far the world's heaviest consumer of oil, the U.S. burns through roughly 20 million barrels per day, of which we import nearly 11 million, or 60 percent. By 2020, the United States could be forced to import even more, 18 million barrels a day. Maintaining such a habit requires the application of unparalleled diplomatic and military resources across the globe.