Part One: Crude Measures

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

Our unceasing hunger, and the pipeline intended to take the edge off it, will transform Ceyhan and its sleepy seaside environs into one of the most significant petroleum outposts in the world. The marine terminal's manager, Gurhan Unal, estimates that the Caspian, Iraqi, and Turkish crude coming this way will amount to an annual throughput of nearly a billion barrels. Dozens of tankers will line up each week to drink from the new spigot.

"America is greedy," Unal says. "That is my personal opinion." He steers his mud-spattered Mercedes jeep to a guard tower at the edge of a cliff, and gets out. Unal has been touring the BOTAS marine terminal—a surreal juxtaposition of brightly colored industrial artifacts and the community that keeps them running. Directly below the cliff, the road passes through a tank farm, where 12 cylindrical structures hold Iraqi petroleum.

Here, the earth is crimson, a by-product of local volcanic activity. White steel pipes run from the tank farm down to the jetty, fueling three supertankers with Kirkuk crude. According to the marine terminal's operators, oil coming to Ceyhan from Iraq travels in liquid columns 200 kilometers long, moving at half a meter per second. This may be the closest one can get to fixing Saddam Hussein's pulse.

illustration: Suzanne Allen

Details

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.

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BTC will own the newly expanded portion of the BOTAS terminal, with BP holding the largest share and essentially governing the operation. The other partners are a mix of state-owned and private oil companies with stakes in Azerbaijan's offshore reserves: ConocoPhillips, Amerada Hess, Total Fina Elf, Socar, Statoil, Unocal, Turkish TPAO, Agip, Itochu, INPEX. Lashed together, this raft of players will move their construction teams north from Ceyhan and south from Baku, threading the pipeline through treacherous terrain.

Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all dysfunctional states—the latter two in far worse condition than the former. Neighboring Armenia, which does not host the pipeline but whose internal politics matter in the cramped strip of land these countries share between the Caspian and Black seas, is not much better off.

All four countries are threatened by war. The 15-year Kurdish insurrection in Turkey's southeastern provinces officially ended in 1999, but shootouts between rebels and government forces continue. Azerbaijan and Armenia remain freeze-framed in a feud over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, situated in Azerbaijan but effectively controlled by Armenia—an arrangement that emerged after fighting over the land in the early '90s claimed roughly 30,000 lives and generated close to a million refugees. Karabakh's front line remains volatile, with small gun battles periodically punctuating streams of invective from the two capitals. Georgia's sinews could tear apart at any moment; in the country's northwest, the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, which gained de facto independence after a civil war, is only the most inflamed of several regions within the country. Directly north of Georgia is Chechnya, a hornet's nest of freelance warriors.

BTC is treading gingerly, not least because 70 percent of the financing for the pipeline is expected to come from export credit agencies and international finance institutions (such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group). By mandate, they must fund projects that serve the public interest.

Maps of the pipeline route show it unfurling like a wrinkled string, avoiding hot spots, trying not to permanently displace even one community. For the sake of transparency, the company has placed more than a million megabytes of information on its Web site (www.caspiandevelopmentandexport.com), including legal agreements with the host countries, technical information, environmental and social impact studies, and detailed charts depicting the pipeline's precise path.

"A lot of people, when they hear of the word pipeline, they think of the old Soviet stuff—big tubes indiscriminately crisscrossing lots of territory aboveground," says Barry Halton, a spokesperson for BP. "But that actually isn't what BTC will look like." Company officials insist they will bury the piping three feet underground, using an environmentally sensitive method that involves shaving off topsoil and storing it so the earth can be reinstated in proper layers.

The completed pipeline will scarcely be noticeable, say BTC executives. They argue it will be at once invisible and a powerful engine for economic development, with oil and transport revenues reviving tired treasuries. "There are other pipelines in Turkey where the reinstatement isn't as good as it could have been," adds Halton. "We are very well aware of that, and what we will be doing is far superior. As we go along, we will even put right other people's work as we encounter it."

A number of nongovernmental organizations in the region and abroad are unconvinced. And the dialogue between them and the company is in many ways emblematic of the larger ongoing discourse between anti-globalization activists and big business, by turns constructive and frustrated.

"BP is demanding this money, but is unwilling to debate the public necessity of public funding," says Anders Lustgarten, an activist at the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. "We invited them to a debate at the House of Lords, and they refused to come. We had meetings with them in private, but the company appears to want to keep these discussions out of the public domain. But they're asking for billions in public funding. It doesn't seem legitimate to us."

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