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Caspian: Ecological Concerns Mask Political Aims

Caspian nations are raising the issue of environmental hazards from pipeline projects. But so far, the criticism has been aimed at heading off rival plans for competitive routes. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 11 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Environmental concerns are emerging as a political tool in the Caspian Sea region as shoreline nations cite ecological reasons for opposing rival projects.

Last week (7 June), the new U.S. representative for Caspian affairs, Steven Mann, denied Russian claims that pipelines across the Caspian would threaten the environment. Speaking at a conference in Baku, Mann said that any pipeline built by Western oil companies "would meet the highest standards of environmental security."

Mann added: "I can speak for U.S. firms in particular and Western firms in general, and say that they are extraordinarily sensitive to the ecological implications."

At present, there are no pipelines that cross the Caspian. A trans-Caspian gas project was shelved last year because of disputes between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. U.S. officials have said there are no current plans for a trans-Caspian oil line.

But an oil link from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan has been seen as a possibility for exports through the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan now reaches Baku by barge.

Although trans-Caspian projects remain only possibilities, they have become favorite environmental targets for both Russia and Iran.

During a visit to Moscow three months ago, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami joined with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a public statement that said: "The parties openly declare their disagreement [with the idea of] laying any trans-Caspian oil and natural gas pipeline on the sea bed. That would be dangerous in the environmental sense in conditions of extreme geodesic activity."

Both Iran and Russia have brought environmental fears to the fore in support of their own export routes. Similarly, both have argued against the Baku-Ceyhan route on the grounds that it would not be "economic" or "commercially viable." By contrast, they both view pipeline routes across their own soil as sensible and ecologically sound.

But the wording of the joint Khatami-Putin statement in March backfired after Kazakhstan asked how it was expected to get oil piped from its offshore fields without laying pipelines on the seabed. The question prompted Russia's Caspian envoy, Viktor Kalyuzhny, to fly immediately to Astana to assure the Kazakhs that the statement did not really mean what it said.

Since then, Russia has been careful to criticize the environmental problems it associates with pipelines that go all the way across the Caspian, instead of only part of the way from a country's oil fields to its shoreline. There has been no explanation of what the environmental difference is.

Most recently, during a visit to Astana two weeks ago (30 May), Kalyuzhny argued against a Caspian oil route between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Kalyuzhny said: "Before starting to realize a project on underwater trans-Caspian pipelines we need to first resolve the problem of ecological safety."

Kalyuzhny did not say what it would take for the problem to be resolved. He also did not explain why Russia's Blue Stream project to pipe gas across the Black Sea to Turkey should be any safer than a comparable Caspian line.

Recent Russian statements have taken a progressively softer tone on U.S.-backed pipelines that could serve the interests of allies like Kazakhstan.

In March, Kalyuzhny said Russia would not oppose any pipelines "if they are economically profitable." Then last month, Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov was reported as saying that Russian firms were ready to take part in building the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, although he continued to argue that "the line is not economic."

Russia now seems to be using the environmental issue in much the same way -- saying, in effect, if only it were safe, Moscow would not oppose it. That approach could leave options open in case Russian companies find a future use for trans-Caspian routes. Only Russia will decide when it finds a pipeline to be environmentally safe.

Unfortunately, an approach that combines ecology with strategy can only detract from the legitimate concerns about the Caspian environment. A century of oil development in the region has already left much of it in deplorable shape.

Declining fish populations, together with the lack of a binding international agreement among the five shoreline states, are important reasons for concerted action. Despite its concern, Russia has done little to curb its industrial waste in the Caspian. The bombing of Chechnya's oil fields in the most recent war has reportedly added to the polluted runoff.

A true test will come when the Caspian nations see their environment as a reason to regulate themselves -- instead of regulating others with competing pipeline projects.