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Caspian Sea: Energy Official Promotes Alternate Source

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was the chief Western official prodding OPEC nations toward an oil production increase at their meeting this week. He says he was protecting U.S. economic interests. In a new speech, he says the United States is looking to the Caspian Sea region as an important alternate energy source. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

New York, 3 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says the sharp increase in oil prices worldwide is a reminder of the need to maintain a diverse supply of energy, from diverse sources.

Richardson says the U.S. government is supporting the development of energy-efficient cars and promotes the use of natural gas, a cleaner alternative to oil, to generate power.

But oil remains a key source of U.S. energy and this week's anxious wait for an OPEC decision on production levels indicated how dependent the United States still is on the cartel for oil. Richardson's active lobbying of OPEC leaders proved successful -- prices are expected to go down at U.S. gas stations as early as this summer.

But Richardson stressed in a speech to oil and foreign policy experts that the U.S. need for energy security will require multiple sources. He said that last year the United States imported oil from 40 different countries.

In his speech in New York on Friday before the Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent U.S. think tank, he singled out the Caspian region as a promising potential new source of energy.

Richardson hailed the decision last week by Azerbaijan to give up its share of transit fees for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline in order to satisfy demands by Georgia. The deal could clear the way for commercial agreements on the oil pipeline within one month.

"It was a dramatic gesture that shows how crucial the project is to the region. The agreement will be submitted to the Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani parliaments for ratification by the end of April. We're optimistic that they're going to do so and we're optimistic about the project's future."

The U.S. energy secretary was also confident about the prospects for the Trans Caspian Gas Pipeline, and said the United States is working to have the pipeline's consortium start delivering gas to the Turkish market by the end of 2002. For the Caspian region as a whole, he noted that estimates of oil reserves have ranged from 15 billion to 125 billion barrels.

Richardson said the people of the Caspian states stand poised to benefit from their energy riches

"It has been a long time since the people of this region had the freedom and security to realize their vast potential. Today they have the freedom, they have the security, and today their leaders have shown the vision that will enable this ancient crossroads once again to light the world and brighten all of our futures."

Monitors of human rights in Central Asia and the Caucasus have criticized the U.S. approach to dealing with leaders in the region. Many of the leaders hold close to absolute power and have been slow to enact democratic reforms.

In Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, where the region's greatest energy reserves are believed to be, the latest elections were criticized as deeply flawed by electoral monitors.

In a question-and-answer period following his speech, Richardson was asked about doing business with countries with poor human rights records.

U.S. government officials in the past have spoken of the need for constructive engagement with countries in the region.

Richardson reaffirmed this view. He said that as commercial ties with Western nations increase, the countries of the region will begin to enact meaningful political reforms.

"That contact increases our emphasis and our commitment to democratic values with them. It engages them in the kind of commercial diplomacy that would move them very much in that direction."

Richardson also held out hope for closer cooperation between the United States and Russia on energy issues. He said newly elected President Vladimir Putin has given positive signals about working on energy projects with U.S. companies. The potential resources, he says, are enormous.

"We're hopeful with President Putin. He's market-oriented, he's got interest in energy. He's talked about concentrating more on production-sharing agreements with the United States, joint projects on eliminating a lot of that bureaucracy American companies have to encounter when dealing with Russia."

Richardson referred repeatedly to trips he has taken in the cause of expanding U.S. energy sources -- three times to the Caspian region, and recently to Nigeria, Algeria and Norway. It is all, he says, in the interest of diversifying energy supplies. And perhaps in avoiding another high-stakes diplomatic round with OPEC.