Tales of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline

Sep 24, 2003 02:00 AM

by Natalia Antelava

In recent years, oil-rich Azerbaijan has turned into a new destination for prospectors rushing after the black gold of the modern world. Apart from being one of the world's new hot spots for oil and gas, though, this country between the Caucasus and Iran has been home to human societies for millennia.
Nowhere is this rich heritage more apparent than in Gobustan. A few kilometres away from the oil rigs and tankers parked in the Caspian Sea lies the "land of ravines," a site of ancient human settlements and a vast gallery of prehistoric rock carvings. On your left, an old master--and on your right, a fleet of earthmovers?

Back in Soviet days, the open-air museum at the Gobustan National Cultural Reserve, 60 km southwest of Baku, was one of Azerbaijan's most frequently visited sites. But the economic hardships of the post-Soviet reality have emptied the narrow winding paths that are among the shady caves and rock faces covered with human and animal figures. More visitors are sorely needed, park director Malakhat Farajeva says. More visitors are on their way. The bad news, some say, is that they are not the kind that Gobustan needs.
By 2005, high-quality Azeri crude will start flowing along a pipeline now being laid from the Caspian through Georgia and on to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. To get the oil to thirsty Western markets, the pipeline will have to cross Gobustan. For the government of President Heidar Aliyev, the pipeline, called BTC for its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route, is the guarantee of the country's future prosperity and development. Environmentalists in Azerbaijan and abroad charge that Azeri elites and the pipeline's lead company, British oil giant BP, are prepared to put the country's past at risk for the sake of the future.

Twelve thousand years ago people settled in what was then a well-watered subtropical landscape near the Caspian shore. Today, the marks of those Mesolithic and Neolithic communities are everywhere around: scenes of hunters and dance rituals, animals and even insects, carved on boulders and rock faces spread over 100 sq km of rock-strewn country.
Later arrivals, too, made their mark. There are inscriptions left by Alexander the Great's troops in the 4th century B.C. and 2,000-year-old graffiti scratched by Roman legionnaires.

The Azeri constitution recognizes the cultural and natural value of the Gobustan reserve, with its 6,000 ancient petroglyphs, its volcanic mud lakes, and numerous archaeological sites, giving it special status as a protected territory.
Many environmentalists and civic activists, however, argue that taking the pipeline through a national reserve violates the legislation that protects the park. Environmentalists also argue that the vibration caused by the construction work might prove damaging to the rocks. The pipeline route passes within one kilometre of the nearest petroglyphs.

BP brushes off these concerns. The company says it has done all it can to protect the rocks. The present route was the easiestand safest option available, insists Phil Middleton, BP's environmental and social impact manager for the pipeline, and taking the northerly route suggested by some environmentalists would have meant traversing much more difficult territory than that around Gobustan, presenting problems with erosion control.
"So, even though, potentially, it would be possible to build a pipeline in the area north of the reserve, overall environmental impact would be much greater than for the route we selected through Gobustan," Middleton says.

Non-governmental organizations have never been convinced that Gobustan's treasures will be safe from damage during construction and after, when the oil starts to flow. But neither do they have much scientific evidence to prove BP wrong. And for that, Leyla Yunus of the Caucasus Democracy and Development Institute blames the Azeri government.
"How can I blame BP for not caring for my country, when my own government does not care," Yunus asks. "Everything is decided by bureaucrats. We had no possibility for additional research, No one gave us a chance to ask questions." Because the State Academy of Sciences monopolized research on the impact of the pipeline on cultural sites, Azerbaijan's archaeologists have remained quiet, Yunus says.
"There are no independent scientists who worked on the issue. The Academy of Sciences is under the very close watch of a very cruel administration. And how can people be independent when they know that if they say something against the project, then tomorrow they will lose their job," she asks.

Nongovernmental organizations in Azerbaijan look with envy at the development of events in Georgia, where activists have been free to speak out against plans to route the pipeline through the protected Borjomi gorge -- although to little effect. Opposing the Azeri government is indeed difficult, especially when it comes to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project.
This is the biggest investment the region has ever seen, and the patron of the pipe is Azerbaijan's powerful, though ailing President Heidar Aliyev himself. Aliyev has often said that anyone who questions the project is an enemy of the state -- a dangerous label in a country where violence against civic-society activists is common.

Only a few have dared question the sense of routing the pipeline through a protected reserve, the impact it might have on the archaeological sites, or the reasons why the Environment Ministry gave the project the go-ahead. Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, unlike BP, doesn't even acknowledge that the pipe will cut through a part of Gobustan.
All the "fuss" over the route is "the work of the enemies of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project," is the blunt conclusion of SOCAR spokesman Mamed Mirzoev. Few in Azerbaijan would dispute the significance of the pipeline. Even fewer would be willing to give up the presumed boost to the country's economy, independence, and security from developing the Caspian oil industry.
"But can you have a future if you don't respect your past," asks Mirvarie Garhamanly of the Oil Workers' Rights group, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on corruption and working conditions in the oil industry.

Activists couldn't persuade Azeri elites or the pipeline builders that oil and Gobustan are not a happy combination.
Their hope now is that these ancient rocks will prove resilient enough to handle the world's most modern pipeline.

Tbilisi, Georgia-based writer Natalia Antelava is a frequent contributor to TOL.

Source: TOL
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