The pipeline that will change the world

It is 42 inches wide, 1,090 miles long and is intended
to save the West from relying on Middle Eastern oil.
Nothing has been allowed to stand in its way - and it
finally opens today
By Daniel Howden and Philip Thornton
25 May 2005

The first drops of crude will snake their way along a
pipeline that traverses some of the most unstable and
war-ravaged countries on earth. This is the oil flow
that was meant to save the West, and this morning the
taps were turned on.

Only 42 inches wide, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan was
supposed to alter global oil markets forever. The
1,000-mile project has transformed the geopolitics of
the Caucasus and its impact is now being felt in the
vastness of central Asia.

Output is supposed to reach one million barrels a day
- more than 1 per cent of world production - from an
underground reserve that could hold as many as 220
billion barrels.

Its architects and investors claimed the pipeline
would shore up energy supplies in the US and Europe
for 50 years, protecting our gas-guzzling way of life
and easing our reliance on the House of Saud.

The goal of the ambitious project, which makes its
tortuous way from the Caspian in Azerbaijan, through
Georgia to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, is to
ease the reliance of the West on the Organisation of
Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and bring cheaper
fuel to our filling stations. The pipe threads its way
through the region in a seemingly modest private
corridor only 50 yards wide but nothing has been
allowed to stand in its way. From forests to labour
laws and endangered species to democracy protesters:
all have given way to the costliest and most
significant pipeline ever built.

The project, known as BTC, has driven a wedge between
the US and Russia, triggered political unrest in the
countries it passes through and their neighbours and
sparked concern at extensive damage to the

Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the
US, concern at the West's dependence on Persian Gulf
oil has intensified. For Washington, the opening is a
cause for celebration. "We view this as a significant
step forward in the energy security of that region,"
said Samuel Bodman, the American energy secretary, who
stood next to the three heads of state at today's

With him at the pumping station controls was the
president of the tiny former Soviet republic of
Azerbaijan. The BTC has allowed Ilham Aliev to become
a firm friend of the West while overseeing a
government condemned for human rights abuses and
sitting at the head of an administration placed 140
out of 146 in Transparency International's global
corruption index.

The politics of the pipeline have also changed the
face of Georgia, where the battle for control with
Russia saw immense US influence deployed in support of
the so-called "Rose Revolution". The popular protest
ushered the American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili into
power two years ago. Washington's new ties with
Tbilisi were amply demonstrated when George Bush
became the first US president to visit the country
earlier this month.

In the long-term US ally Turkey, where the pipeline
crucially delivers its oil direct to the Mediterranean
- bypassing the tanker-clogged Bosphorus straits, it
is no accident that it does so right next to the
American airbase at Incirlik.

When big oil companies turned their attentions to the
potential Caspian energy reserves released from behind
the collapsing walls of the Soviet Union, the region
was billed as the "new Middle East". If only the
reserves could be securely transported from the
landlocked sea to the Mediterranean, the West would be
gifted a vital alternative to the volatile Persian
Gulf and the region would be freed from the iron grip
of Russia, which had previously monopolised the export
routes of their former Soviet satellites.

Once the Soviet empire fell, the Caspian found itself
surrounded by five nation states - Azerbaijan, Iran,
Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.

The region's supply of cheap oil and key position on
the historic border between the West and the East
meant that countries quickly moved into position like
pieces on a chessboard.

Three rival plans were drawn up - a northern route
through Russia, a southern alternative through Iran
and the central option through the Caucasus to the

The winner could be in little doubt: the middle road
was the only one which guaranteed Washington and its
corporate allies a corridor of control.

The US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was then chief
executive of oil services giant Halliburton, was among
the first to be swept away in the excitement.

"I cannot think of a time when we have had a region
emerge as suddenly to become as strategically
significant as the Caspian," he said in 1998.

Now, more than a decade and $4bn (2.2bn) later,
almost three quarters of which came from bank loans
which were underwritten by government agencies and
320m in taxpayers' money, the pipeline is open. But
this chapter of what Rudyard Kipling called the "Great
Game" - the secret battle to dominate central Asia -
has only reached the end of its first phase.

The fanfare at the British oil giant BP's gleaming new
terminal at Sangachal in Azerbaijan may yet prove to
be premature.

Stripped of the American hype of the 1990s, the crude
that began a very modest flow this morning is the
first instalment of a reserve many analysts are now
convinced is actually only 32 billion barrels -
equivalent to that of a small Gulf player such as

The game now moves to the transCaspian pipeline and to
the immense plains of Turkmenistan and the political
cauldron of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and beyond. 


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