/** headlines: 153.0 **/
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Fears of Eco-Disaster in Caspian Sea
By Danielle Knight, IPS, 4 February 1999
WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (IPS) - The Azeri pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to the Georgian port of Supsa, opened in January amid great fanfare -with jubilant oil executives smearing oil over their faces.
One month later, with corporations rushing to drill and transport the area's vast petroleum reserves, pollution is threatening the region's environment through a bigger smearing of the "black gold," warns a new report released here.
Powerful transnational oil interests are betting that the landlocked Caspian Sea - bordered by Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - will be one of the world's greatest future sources of oil, notes the report by the Pacific Environment and Resources Centre (PERC).
There has been scant attention given to the ecological consequences of petroleum development, however, and the region could become as polluted as such other oil-rich areas as southern Nigeria, PERC says. The environmental organisation wants oil companies and governments to prioritize the environment over financial gain and political interests.
"It is clear that many environmental considerations are being overlooked as companies and countries rush to claim the bounty of oil resources that they believe lie beneath the waters of the Caspian," says the California-based PERC.
Large-scale environmental damage from oil development could lead to disastrous impacts in the Caspian Sea region. "Those pristine areas that remain along the Caspian shoreline - which still harbor important habitat for sturgeon, birds, and the Caspian Seal - will be placed in further danger by large-scale oil development," warns the report.
Previous oil and industrial ventures in the area badly polluted the sea and threatened the future of sturgeon - the source of caviar. The pollution has caused a decline in fisheries and several rare and endangered bird species that winter on the Caspian, including flamingos, also have been threatened, says PERC.
A mysterious rise in sea level of the Caspian poses another problem in the region as floods become more common and wash oil from the drilling platforms. The current rush for region's petroleum will worsen the already polluted environment, says PERC.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, global energy giants - including Chevron, Unocal, Exxon and British Petroleum - have been aggressively pursuing petroleum reserves in this politically unstable, war-torn area. Regional governments and world superpowers, such as China, Europe, Russia, and the United States, also are players in the "world energy game."
This modern version of the 19th century "Great Game" - in which Britain and Russia competed for dominance in the region - the nations that win oil and gas pipeline routes will gain political advantages and be able to help shape events in the area for decades to come.
Another high stakes contest, however is the "Great Ecological Game," which is the title of the PERC report. Because of the highly political nature of the oil rush in the Caspian region, companies and governments have sidelined environmental considerations, the group says.
In opening the Azeri pipeline project, PERC says that the companies and governments involved "overlooked and neglected key environmental factors in its construction of oil drilling and transport facilities."
Under a 7.4 billion dollar agreement with the Azeri state oil company, the pipeline is operated by a consortium of 12 companies from the United States, Britain, Norway, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the project have come from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation.
An environmental assessment of operational plans representing some of the most critical environmental aspects of the pipeline, such as whether to re-inject drilling wastes into the area, was not completed, says PERC.
These plans therefore were not presented to the public for comment or to the World Bank and European Bank for approval, as required by those financial institutions. "It's even unclear whether the public will have access to this information in the future," says Doug Norlen, a policy analyst at PERC.
The group also critiques the assessment for making little mention of how local and regional conflicts could impact the environment through attacks on pipelines or oil platforms.
In other proposed projects, governments have argued that they prefer certain pipeline routes because they will pose less of a risk to the environment. Critics counter that the countries are using ecological considerations as an excuse for gaining political advantages.
Turkey, for instance, says it cannot bear more tanker traffic through the already polluted Bosporus Straights to the Mediterranean. The only solution, says Tuirkey, is to build a pipeline across their country. US officials strongly support this route as it would assure delivery of oil to the Mediterranean through friendly territory.
Such a pipeline would be unfavourable to the geopolitical interests of Russia and Iran, which have proposed alternative routes through their territories that they argue would be shorter and cheaper.
When not politically advantageous, environmental concerns are sidelined, says PERC. This is evident in the Azeri project and in other cases where governments and companies have attempted to limit payment upgrade pipelines that risked leaking or spilling oil, thew report says.
Such inconsistency on environmental concerns, says PERC, "illustrates the extent to which valid and important environmental concerns can rise or fall among countries and companies when it is convenient, in order to gain geopolitical or financial advantage."
"If the Great Game of the Caspian is to benefit societies at large," says the report, "it would be wise to put environmental concerns before geo-politics."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service outside of the APC networks, without specific permission from IPS. This limitation includes distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media and broadcast. For information about cross- posting, send a message to <firstname.lastname@example.org>. For information about print or broadcast reproduction please contact the IPS coordinator at <email@example.com>.