Joe Baker: TransCaspian pipeline opens

The first phase of the long celebrated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is open. The first trickle of crude oil began flowing through it May 25.

This new pipeline is 42 inches wide, 1,090 miles long and is meant to keep the West from depending so heavily on Mideastern oil. Nothing has been permitted to block its completion or operation.

As reported by Britain’s Independent, the project has changed the geopolitics of the Caucasus and its effect is registering in central Asia.

The pipeline crosses some of the most rugged, unstable and war-ravaged countries on the globe. It is expected to produce about 1 million barrels a day, a bit more than 1 percent of global production, from a reservoir that was thought to hold as much as 220 billion barrels. Current global production is 84 million barrels a day, and the forecast for the requirement in the fourth quarter of this year is 87 million barrels a day.

Investors and designers of the project claimed it would bolster U.S. and European energy supplies for 50 years, guarding our profligate use of oil and lessening dependence on Mideast oil.

The pipeline, which wends its way from the Caspian basin in Azerbaijan, through Georgia to the coast of Turkey, is meant to ease Western dependence on OPEC nations for crude oil, thus bringing cheaper gas to our service stations.

The pipe travels through a corridor no more than 50 yards wide but nothing, from forests, to endangered species, to laws, to political protests, has been allowed to get in its way.

Known as BTC, the pipeline is the most expensive and most significant ever built. It has driven a wedge between Russia and the U.S., according to The Independent, and has prompted political unrest in the countries through which it passes and their neighbors, and has caused considerable environmental damage.

The Bush administration views the pipeline opening as a cause for celebration. “We view this as a significant step forward in the energy security of that region,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who attended the opening ceremony.

In Turkey, long a staunch U.S. ally, the pipeline delivers its oil direct to the Mediterranean, and it is no accident that it does so adjacent to the American airbase at Incirlik.

Now, more than 10 years and $4 billion later, the pipeline is open, but the veiled struggle to dominate central Asia is only at the end of the first phase.

Cleared of all the hype of the 1990s, the crude now flowing is just the first installment of a reserve many analysts now say is only 32 billion barrels—about the reservoir of a small Gulf state like Qatar.

Emphasis now will shift to the plains of Turkmenistan and the bubbling political stewpot of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and beyond.

From the June 15-21, 2005, issue

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