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Pipeline to Promise or Pipeline to Peril? New U.S.-Backed Oil Route Starts Moving Crude Oil From Azerbaijan to the West

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A U.S.-backed oil pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean opened on Wednesday, and began moving crude oil from Azerbaijan to the West. The route of the pipeline is reportedly designed to only go through nations with strong U.S. support like Azerbaijan and Georgia, which have both been criticized for human rights abuses. We also examine why many believe the pipeline could be could be an environmental disaster for the region. [includes rush transcript]

On Wednesday, the long-awaited oil pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, started moving crude oil from Azerbaijan to the West. The Caspian sea contains the world’s third-largest oil and gas reserves and plans for the $3.6 billion dollar pipeline began more than ten years ago. It is one of the longest oil routes in the world and it is expected to pump 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2010.

Heads of state from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey attended the inauguration, as did U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, and Lord Browne, chief executive of the British energy giant BP, which led the pipeline investment consortium. The consortium also includes the US firms Unocal and Conoco Phillips.

The U.S government has been heavily involved in the planning of the project over the last decade and has spent millions to help protect the underground pipeline. But the massive project has brought increasing scrutiny to U.S support of the repressive regime in Azerbaijan. The project has also raised a host of environmental concerns and many believe it could be could be an environmental disaster for the region.

  • Candace Rondeaux, reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. She traveled to Georgia in November 2004 as an International Reporting Fellow at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
  • Michael Klare, Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College. His latest book is called “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum.”
  • Enzer Safafzade, South Caspian program coordinator for Crude Accountability, an NGO that works with local activists and citizen groups in the Caspian basin.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: From Tampa, Florida, here to talk with us more about the pipeline is Candace Rondeaux. She is a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. Her article about the pipeline titled, “A Pipeline to Promise or a Pipeline to Peril?” was published in the St. Pete Times earlier this month. Welcome to Democracy Now!

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Just lay out the scope of this, but before you even do that, a little geography lesson for our listeners and viewers around the world, Candace.

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Okay. Well, the pipeline starts at the Caspian Sea coast. So, if you were going south from Moscow, you would hit the Caspian Sea, if you headed a little bit east. So, you go from Baku through Georgia near the capital, Tbilisi, and westward and south down through Turkey to the Mediterranean seaport of Ceyhan.

AMY GOODMAN: And the scope of this pipeline, how significant is it in terms of world politics, in terms of past oil pipelines?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: It’s a very significant project. It’s certainly one of the longest in the world. It’s a massive undertaking on the part of BP in terms of construction. It’s going over heights of something like 9,100 feet at different stages. It makes about 1,500 river crossings. It’s an pretty intense engineering fete. In terms of what it will deliver to the world, you know, there’s some debate about that. On the one hand, people have compared it to the oilfields and the Caspians — something on the measure of something like the North Sea oilfields, which is significant but it’s not Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, what it can do is sort of staunch the fears that oil might dry up, you know, for instance, if OPEC, for instance, decided again to initiate a boycott. The Caspian Sea oil would be there, and it would be well under the control of the U.S. government, in part because of its backing of the pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: Candace Rondeaux, we’re going to break for a moment, and then we’ll come back to continue this discussion. We’ll also be joined by an environmentalist from Azerbaijan, people concerned about the situation there, and by Michael Klare, head of Peace Studies at Hampshire College to talk about the military geopolitics significance of this pipeline. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in Tampa studio is Candace Rondeaux, a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, has done an extremely extensive piece on the largest, costliest pipeline in the world. It has just opened in Azerbaijan, and Candace is explaining to us the geopolitical significance. How much time did you spend in the area, Candace?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: I was actually based in Tbilisi for about a month, and I traveled for about ten days to Baku to do some interviews with folks at BP and also see what I could see there, but I spent actually most of my time in Western Georgia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in your article, you mention, obviously, all of the rivers that this pipeline has to cross, and especially what caught my eye was your mention of the Borjomi Gorge and the possible threat to a mineral water supply. Could you talk about that?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Sure, this is absolutely probably one of the most significant issues, particularly for Georgians, but I think on some level for international activists who have been following this, the Borjomi Gorge is a mountainous region, sort of west of Tbilisi by about 100 miles or so, where for over a century, people have been traveling there to partake of these really fantastic mineral waters. It also happens to be the place where these mineral waters are sort of like the Perrier of Eastern Europe. For many, many years if you lived in the Soviet Union, and you had a hangover, you wake up in the morning and you drink Borjomi. It’s a pretty popular brand and it actually happens to be one of the chief economic engines for Georgia. I think it adds up to something like 10% of the total exports for the country. So the concern there with Borjomi and the pipeline going through it is that if the pipeline should break or if there is a leakage of any kind, the region could be damaged. More specifically, the water source could be damaged, as well, and sullied. And that would be a huge, huge disaster of a scale probably not seen in Georgia for quite some time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by Michael Klare. Michael Klare, head of Peace Studies at Amherst College. Can you talk about the military geopolitics of this pipeline?

MICHAEL KLARE: This is a region, Amy, that is of intense interest not only to the United States but also to Russia, to China, to Iran, to Turkey, and it’s also an area that’s deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. The pipeline through Georgia passes by four or five separate ethnic areas of ethnic instability and separatism. So, it’s a very volatile area. It’s an area of intense geopolitical competition and the fact that the United States has inserted itself there has very severe military implications. And indeed, the U.S. has sent troops into the area to help train the Georgian forces that will protect the pipeline. The U.S. is building up a naval presence in the Caspian Sea. I see this as the fulcrum for geopolitical conflict in the 21st century, this entire area.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Michael, this whole issue of United States troops protecting oil supplies around the world, this is obviously not the first nor the last of these. Could you give us, our listeners, a sense of where the United States is right now, doing the same kind of basically security guard protection work?

MICHAEL KLARE: This is really a very important story, and it’s partly because, you know, as you’re discussing with the BTC pipeline, more and more of our oil and natural gas is going to come from very remote areas. It has to be pumped through pipelines over long distances through dangerous areas, and so the U.S. military increasingly is playing a role in pipeline protection. We have troops protecting pipelines in Iraq. We have troops protecting the Cano Limon pipeline in Colombia. There’s a new pipeline opened up in Africa, the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. There aren’t American troops there, but American troops are looking for bases in the region. So, this is part of the global military posture now of the United States, increasingly devoted to the protection of pipeline and sea routes that carry oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klare, again, Professor at Hampshire College, author of the book, Blood and Oil. Candace Rondeaux, did a major piece on this new pipeline for the St. Petersburg Times. Candace, you talk about the U.S. spending millions of dollars to Georgia to train troops in anti-terrorism tactics and the Bush administration planning to spend another hundred million dollars to train and equip the Caspian guard, a network of special operations and police units that will protect the oil facilities and key assets in the region. Where exactly is this money going? Who are these guard?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Well, the guard is actually, you know, a bit of a murky force out there. I mean, the Wall Street Journal seemed to have some difficulty getting U.S. military folks to really pin down exactly what would happen, but as I understand it, I think it would be very similar to the Train and Equip Program that Georgia has been a beneficiary of. That’s the $64 million that the U.S. has spent to send advisers over to train the Georgian military in anti-terrorism tactics. Primarily a lot of this training has taken place in an area called Pankisi Gorge, which is also in Western Georgia. And it’s an area where there’s been a lot of activity on the part of Chechen rebels. There’s been some sort of scuffles between Russia and Georgia over the region. And it’s one of those pockets, as with several other pockets, actually, in the region, that Mr. Klare was actually describing where ethnic rivalries could actually very easily spill into a serious military conflict. So I think the idea, you know, in part with the Caspian guard does have to do indeed with increased naval presence, not necessarily on the part of the United States, but certainly there would be advisers there, and to some extent, you know, this means spending more money on equipment, fire power in the region, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the pipeline when it passes through Turkey, does it go through any Kurdish areas that might also, given the fact that Turkey has an ongoing battle over Kurdish autonomy there, would that have an impact on it at all?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: I think so. I mean, there’s some debate as to whether — which parts of Eastern Turkey are controlled by the P.K.K., which is the Kurdish sort of rebel group that has been operating on and off in Turkey for over a decade. There is definitely concern on the part of international activists, particularly those in London, who have been watching this very closely, have been working with a lot of Turkish activists who are Kurds, who are concerned that people are not, (a) being properly compensated when the pipeline passes over their land, and (b) when they protest or they are concerned about labor issues connected with the pipeline, the Turkish regime seems to have been relatively repressive with folks who are outspoken about their concerns about the pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone, in addition to Candace Rondeaux of St. Petersburg Times and Professor Michael Klare at Hampshire College, by Enzer Safafzade. And he is joining us from Azerbaijan. We welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!

ENZER SAFAFZADE: Good morning to everybody. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my ideas about pipeline. I have heard a very interesting discussion, but I also want to touch some interesting moments of this. Of course, the pipeline has a big political issue and a big economic issue. For example, a couple of years before, nobody believed that this pipeline will be economical effectively because of oil, which you have in Azerbaijan is not enough for this pipe. I personally never thought that Kazakhstan will join into this business against Russia, in my opinion. In this case, I think in my opinion, it’s a little bit some good work — good or not, I do not know, but it is the work of U.S. government also. I am going to touch also some other moment about democracy in all of these countries. U.S. government always mentions, for example, it was not good the political [inaudible] in Ukraine before, not good in Belorussia, in my opinion, not enough about our region, Azerbaijan. In this case, I personally thinking the reason that some — there are political interests in this pipe, which is more interest than the democracy in Azerbaijan itself, in my opinion. For example, now, in my opinion more than ninety percent of the population of Azerbaijan is living very poor. The situation, in my opinion, last ten years is the same. I’m not sure of the [inaudible] this pipe will go distribute it. In Azerbaijan, we don’t have development of other industries, just selling the crude oil. I’m scared, for example, that we will have a situation as Nigeria had ten years ago, ten or twenty years ago, for example. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Enzer Safafzade in Baku, Azerbaijan. Also, just as this pipeline has opened in your country, the government, backed by the United States, banned opposition parties from holding protest rallies, demanding fair elections and free speech. Is this the case?

ENZER SAFAFZADE: Excuse me. Say it again, please.

AMY GOODMAN: Did your government last week ban opposition parties from holding protest rallies demanding fair elections?

ENZER SAFAFZADE: What I can say is that, of course, our government tactics are opening this pipeline because it’s like some guarantee for them that this government will work in Azerbaijan a lot of time, in my opinion. It’s kind of a guarantee for them, opening this pipeline. They will do everything for the oil business and do what they ask from them. I’m not sure that I answered directly of your question, but maybe it was something.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what about the state of the opposition movement in your country? Has it gone under any more repression lately?

ENZER SAFAFZADE: I get it. You know, about our opposition. We have the same opposition during last 15 years. In this case, personally, me, I have some suspicions that for someone in our government that’s even a good to have some kind opposition here. In my opinion, good way will be for Azerbaijan creating the civil society here, but in my opinion it’s not good, I mean, development on that sector, for example. By the way in my opinion, U.S. foundations like U.S. Aid here have spent a lot of money for creating — supporting the [inaudible] in Azerbaijan. But the last couple of years, I can see they cut it maybe a couple of times the support for Azerbaijan. [ inaudible ] Azerbaijan, democracy is just to invoke the social — social society and all process here — [ inaudible ] we are out of process — [ inaudible ] what will be income of oil, the most people have no idea for what is the oil contract itself, for example, and that means we are not sure how and how many money we’ll spend it for Azerbaijan, for industry, for opening new work places and for social issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Enzer Safafzade, talking to us from Azerbaijan. Professor Michael Klare, the politics of Russia and Iran, and I want to put this question to Candace Rondeaux, as well.

MICHAEL KLARE: Your question is what interest do they have in this area, and of course, a map would help, because people would see that the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus to the north is Russia, which long dominated the area. To the south is Iran, and they obviously have strong interest in this area, as well, and the United States has inserted itself, obviously stirring up concern and anxiety and hostility, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Candace Rondeaux.

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Well, I think there’s been a lot of disputes over the Caspian itself with all of the nations that are bordering it, so that includes Russia and Iran. And in fact, I believe last year there was even an incident in which an Iranian naval ship was out sort of patrolling its own waters and came into conflict and fired a few shots at some oil workers. I’m not sure exactly what the, you know, the circumstances were surrounding that, but there have been a few sort of narrow misses and conflicts there, and Khatami, President Khatami of Iran has in the past, although perhaps not as recently as you know, this — during this opening, he has been very negative about the pipeline, has been very — made some very strong statements against it. Initially, with Russia, there was a lot of resistance because essentially, you know, the U.S. is coming in and big footing on territory that Russia has dominated for centuries, and specifically actually, you know, has been very dominant in oil transport, particularly to the north, where you have several pipelines going across to the Black Sea.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Candace, you mentioned earlier the many ethnic minorities, areas that this pipeline crosses, and also the Chechen activity in some areas. To what degree is there widespread activity by Muslim guerrilla groups throughout that area?

CANDACE RONDEAUX: You know, that tends to be, to me, I think, a bit of a misnomer. I do think that there is certainly, you know, with regard to the Chechens, there’s no doubt that there’s some sort of backing there from, you know, different international terrorist organizations that may or may not have ties to al Qaeda, but really, the regions I think that are probably of most concern or the one region that is probably the greatest concern would be the region of South Ossetia, which is slightly North of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There’s been a conflict going on there since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There are some Russian-backed rebels who have been working to break out, and turn South Ossetia into its own republic. Another place, a little bit west of there is, of course, Abkhazia, who has had an intractable conflict between ethnic groups there. Russia, again, has sort of muddied the waters and stirred up conflict there. And most recently with the elections actually, while I was there in November, there was a lot of controversy over the election of Abkhazia’s new president, Sergei Bagapsh.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all very much for being with us, Candace Rondeaux of the St. Petersburg Times, Enzer Safafzade, speaking to us from Baku, Azerbaijan, and Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil, a Professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

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