Addressing world energy executives at the Sangacal oil terminal, some 40 kilometers south of Baku, the Azerbaijani, Turkish, Georgian, and Kazakh leaders spoke with one voice to underline the importance of the new transport route.
Azerbaijan's main oil-export conduit will connect Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan via the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It will be coupled with a natural-gas-export pipeline linking Baku, Tbilisi, and Turkey's eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum in 2006.
Construction of the U.S.-sponsored Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) started in 2001, and its final cost totaled well over the $3 billion originally planned.
Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan were the two main regional architects of the BTC.
Yet neither of the two leaders attended today's ceremony. Shevardnadze was deposed by peaceful opposition-led street protests in November 2003, and Heidar Aliyev -- after whom the Azerbaijani section of the BTC was renamed -- died nearly two years ago to be succeeded by his son, Ilham.
Addressing reporters in Baku yesterday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said both the BTC and its sister gas pipeline were of utmost importance for his country -- which until now has been heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.
"In practical terms, [BTC] and the [Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum] gas pipeline are extremely important projects for Georgia," Saakashvili said. "When the gas pipeline is launched, the issue of Georgia's energy independence will be finally solved. Georgia will no longer depend on a single source for its energy supplies. This is the most important guarantor of our energy independence."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in turn thanked Azerbaijan's neighbors for contributing to making the immense project a reality.
"[It is the input of] regional cooperation and mutual understanding that made this seemingly unrealistic project -- the world's largest energy project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline -- come into life," Aliyev said.
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said today that he is confident the new pipeline will bring stability and economic gains to the entire Southern Caucasus region. [For analysts' opinions, click here.]
"The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is the most important element of the East-West transport corridor -- also known as the Silk Road of the 21st century -- makes an important contribution in enhancing the stability and economic well-being of the entire region," Sezer said.
The BTC stretches 1,760 kilometers, including 440 kilometers through Azerbaijan and 250 kilometers through Georgia. The pipeline is designed to carry oil extracted from Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian Sea by a BP-led international consortium comprising 11 companies.
It will take several months to fill the conduit.
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler told the Anadolu news agency today that the first barrel of oil will not reach its final destination until September.
BTC will be running at full capacity only in 2009, when production reaches its peak in Azerbaijan. The pipeline will then carry an expected 1 million barrels of oil per day.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced plans yesterday to export part of its production through BTC under a scheme that would involve the construction of an underwater pipeline linking the Kazakh city port of Aktau to Baku.
Aliyev's chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev said today that experts are still working on a final document that should seal Kazakhstan's participation in the project.
Also today, the presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia signed a joint declaration reaffirming their commitment to build a railway connection between the Turkish city of Kars, near the Armenian border, and Baku.
The line will go through Georgia's predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, and then on to Tbilisi.