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Roll Out the Barrel

Last week saw the official opening ceremony of the Azeri section of a 1,100 mile pipeline which will soon carry 1 million barrels of oil a day for the next forty years from the terminal on the Caspian Sea near Baku in Azerbaijan, through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

As well as the presidents of Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan – the latter of whom opened the tap to allow the first oil to flow into his country,s section of the pipeline the ceremony was attended by Lord Browne, head of British Petroleum, the largest shareholder in the project consortium, (which also includes the US firms Unocal and ConocoPhillips), and the US energy secretary, Samuel Bodnam, who read a statement from George W Bush which said the BTC pipeline could “help generate balanced economic growth, and provide a foundation for a prosperous and just society that advances the cause of freedom.”

Although invited, President Vladimir Putin’s representative for international energy cooperation failed to turn up for the ceremony. Russian officials had tried to persuade Azerbaijan not to sign on to the project. Not surprising, as the $4 billion pipeline was masterminded over 10 years ago with the help of a United States that wanted to break Russia,s export monopoly on oil pumped in the land-locked Caspian Sea.

Estimates put reserves in the region at 33bn barrels, compared with around 715bn barrels in the Persian Gulf. Caspian production amounts to around 2m barrels a day – roughly the same as Iraq.

The first cargo is expected to be loaded at Ceyhan in the latter part of the year – as it will take BP several months to fill the pipeline before commercial shipments can begin. In order to fill the pipeline 10 million barrels of oil will be needed. The project capacity of the pipeline amounts to 50 million tons of oil annually.

Environmental and human rights groups have criticised the scheme. The Kurdish Human Rights Project and Friends of the Earth, amongst others, are particularly critical of Botas, the nationalised Turkish pipeline company, which is carrying out the construction work in Turkey.

Botas has been accused of offering far less compensation to landowners than promised, and NGOs say there have been cases of landowners being threatened for refusing to accept offers of compensation. They also allege that Ferhat Kaya, a human rights activist, was beaten up and tortured last year as a direct result of his work on cases of abuses related to land expropriation in Turkey.

The pipeline will cause major pollution. Unlocking these vast oil reserves will directly contradict climate change commitments. The burning of these reserves will have a catastrophic impact on the earth,s climate for centuries. It will create more pollution each year than every power station in the UK, or the combined effect of every car, truck, bus and train in the UK, or twice as much as heating every house in the UK.

The pipeline route runs through the most serious earthquake zone in Turkey. The pipeline itself and the transport to markets will lead to greater risks of oil spills. Not to mention the risk of the pipeline becoming a target for guerrilla bombing campaigns.

To guard against threats, the United States has spent $64-million to train Georgian troops in antiterrorism tactics. American military officials have said the United States will spend an additional $100-million to train and equip the Caspian Guard, a network of special operations and police units that will protect oil facilities and key assets in the region, the Wall Street Journal reported in April.

Some engineers who worked on the project claim there were insufficient checks on the risk of the pipe buckling in earthquake zones. Another concern cited by the Baku Ceyhan Campaign, a group opposing the pipeline, is the effectiveness of the coating designed to protect the pipe from corrosion. Any leakage in Georgia could affect the mineral water aquifer at Borjorni national park. Borjorni water is a major Georgian export.

The pipeline passes through 8 different conflict zones. BP,s pipeline in Colombia has exacerbated conflict in the region, with BP funding paramilitaries to silence its critics, including its own workers, to keep the oil flowing.

In terms of human rights, we only have to look at BP’s track record (and that of any other oil company such as Shell in Ogoniland, Nigeria) to know what this pipeline will mean for the people on the ground. The area around the pipeline will be run under special ‘BP law’. In other places such as Nigeria and Colombia, this has meant killings and disappearances by brutal paramilitaries, paid for by host countries and by us, through public money and BP tax dodges and corruption.

It is often argued that projects like these will benefit the host governments and affected communities financially. The records show this is rarely the case. BP pays notoriously low taxes. It paid almost no tax on its North Sea pipeline system. Even if local people were employed by the consortium for the lifetime of the project, the long term consequences are the loss of local land, skills and health. In fact the only long term jobs to be created by the project are 350 in Turkey, 250 in Azerbaijan and 250 in Georgia.

A gas pipeline is also under construction, following the same route.

The Bush administration first recognized the pipeline’s potential in May 2001, when an energy policy review spearheaded by the vice-president, Dick Cheney, said the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan was capable of exporting 2.6m barrels a day if pipelines like the BTC were operational.

During World War 2 Hitler was convinced that if he could take oil-rich Baku, he would win world domination. It seems that certain power-crazed maniacs have the same idea today.

MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime’s Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted at www.stuckism.com, where collages from his recently banned website can be seen.

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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