Bucharest, 29 September 1998 (RFE/RL) --Romania has yet to sign a contract to transit any Caspian oil through its Black Sea port of Constanta. But an oil conference that ends today in Bucharest has certainly drawn the attention of international planners to Romania's transit potential.
Yesterday, as delegates discussed the merits of a pipeline linking Constanta to the Adriatic port at Trieste, Romanian Prime Minister Radu Vasile was meeting privately with Azerbaijan's Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov.
A spokesman for Vasile says the two agreed to form a committee that will meet in three weeks to further explore transit options. That meeting would come at precisely the time when the Azerbaijani International Oil Company (AIOC) is due to announce its decision on a main export route for Azeri oil.
Washington, Ankara and Azerbaijan support a route from Baku through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean port at Ceyhan. The AIOC, which groups 11 international oil firms with Azerbaijan's state-owned SOCAR, will have the final say on the matter. But the Baku-Ceyhan route is widely seen as the front runner.
But industry experts meeting in Bucharest say that wouldn't rule out a transit role for Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine or Russia. Giorgi Chanturia, president of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, says most crude oil from Kazakhstan is N-O-T expected to pass through Azerbaijan's main route.
Chanturia says Kazakh shipments will pass through Russia and Georgia, to be loaded onto tankers at Novorossiysk and Supsa. He said there is enough crude for all Black Sea countries to share transit fees. For environmental reasons, Turkey does not want a large increase in tanker traffic passing through the Bosporus Strait.
Chanturia says the immediate problem facing Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine is whether they can build their own links and upgrade their terminal infrastructures to send the oil on to Europe.
This week's conference in Bucharest was a lobby effort on the part of the Romanian government to make foreign investors aware of Constanta port.
Bucharest wants Constanta to become not only a major transit point for oil, but for all kinds of trade between Europe and Central Asia along the so-called "New Silk Road."
Romanian Transport Minister Traian Basescu says a major advantage of Constanta is that it could offer a direct navigable waterway all the way to Rotterdam, Holland and the North Sea. But Basescu admits that negotiations are still needed with Germany so that vessels could pass through the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.
Romania also is hoping to build new pipeline links to the west. That issue raised political debates at the Bucharest conference.
The Italian oil firm Eni is now studying a possible link between Constanta and Trieste that would pass through Slovenia, Croatia and the Serbian terminal at Pancevo.
But U.S. Ambassador James Rosapepe made it clear that Washington prefers a Trieste-Constanta link to pass through Hungary rather than Serbia.
Romanian Prime Minister Radu Vasile noted that the U.S. Trade and Development Agency has provided a 650,000 dollar grant to study the route through southern Hungary. Vasile said four U.S. firms are bidding in a tender to conduct that study. They are Gulf Interstate Engineering; Parsons Energy and Chemicals Group; Raytheon Engineers and Constructors; and Stone & Webster Engineers & Constructors.
Meanwhile, the directors of two European Union energy programs said n-o country should be isolated from Caspian transit plans. That is seen in Bucharest as support, in principle, for Eni's possible pipeline across Serbia.
Peter Schutterle, Secretary General of the European Commission's Energy Charter Secretariat, said whoever finances the project will ultimately have the final decision on the route. Romanian Transport Minister Basescu says Bucharest faces a "political decision" on the issue.
Regardless of whether a link is made through Hungary or Serbia, a pipeline from Constanta to Trieste would drastically alter the pattern of oil shipments coming out of the Black Sea.
Since 1967, oil shipments have been passing from Trieste across Switzerland through the Transalpine (TAL) pipeline. And in the last three years, the MERO pipeline has provided a direct link to Czech refineries at Kralupy and Litvinov.
Guglielmo Moscato, chairman of Eni, said the company's proposal for a Southeastern European Link (SEEL) also would rehabilitate sections of the Adria pipeline, which has been out of operation because of war in the former Yugoslavia. Built in the late 1970s, the Adria pipeline had transported oil from the former Yugoslavia to refineries in Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia.