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Russia-Georgia Conflict Raises Concerns About Caspian Energy Exports

Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan launching the BTC pipeline in July 2006
Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan launching the BTC pipeline in July 2006
The conflict between Georgia and Russia appears to be ending, but the questions the hostilities have raised about energy export routes in the Caucasus are just starting to be asked.

"Obviously the conflict between Georgia and Russia has affected the whole geopolitical structure" in the Caucasus," says Federico Bordonaro, an analyst for Milan-based, "and many analysts and many observers, many investors have wondered what is going to happen to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and to the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline and to the European and American plans to enhance the role of the southern Caucasus region for conveying strategic hydrocarbons toward the West."

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline is already operational and, according to plan is, by 2009, supposed to carry 1 million barrels of oil per day to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, where most of it then goes to Europe. The Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) pipeline carries some 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually and, when fully operational in 2012, will export twice that amount, most of which again goes to Europe.

The BTC is currently not functioning due to an explosion on the pipeline in eastern Turkey on August 5, so the situation in Georgia has not had the immediate impact it might have had on the flow of oil.

Georgian officials have said Russian forces tried to attack the pipeline as recently as August 12. It's a claim Georgian officials have been making since the start of hostilities with Russia on August 8.

The fighting in Georgia has already closed alternative oil-export routes, according to Charles Esser an energy analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The alternative export route, which is to take by rail or older pipelines oil from Azerbaijan across to Georgian ports, that route has now been blocked by the destruction of those ports and blocking of those ports by Russia," Esser says.

Compounding those problems, BP announced on August 12 that it is temporarily shutting down an older pipeline from Baku to Supsa, on Georgia's Black Sea coast. That pipeline usually carries some 90,000 barrels of oil a day.

New Emphasis On Security

But it is not only oil exports that have been affected. Turkish media have reported a halt in natural-gas supplies via the BTE pipeline.

The situation with gas exports is different than with oil. The ICG's Esser says that the groups planning to build gas pipelines in the Caucasus -- like the Nabucco project due to be finished in 2013 -- have other issues to be concerned with.

"Oil can be, to a certain extent, rerouted. Gas, in terms of expanding gas production, you'd really have to have a dedicated energy transit route and we're thinking about Nabucco, which is of course Europe's plan for bringing additional gas from Turkmenistan into Europe," Esser says. "It would pass through basically the same route as the BTE pipeline "
Caucasus -- BTC pipeline map, undated

Economically speaking, Azerbaijan and Turkey also are almost certain to be affected by the Russian-Georgian conflict. Azerbaijan and Turkey hope to expand as major energy hubs between the Caspian and Europe, and there are several pipeline projects planned that would bring oil and natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe via the Caucasus and Turkey. But potential investors for those projects will now have to take a fresh look at the energy-transit situation in the Caucasus in light of the recent fighting.

The former president of Azerbaijan's state oil company, Sabit Bagirov, tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the three countries the pipelines pass through -- Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey -- and the foreign companies involved in building and maintaining those energy export routes, must now place a greater emphasis on pipeline security.

"[Due to] the recent blast on the pipeline in Turkey, 20,000 tons of oil were lost, and then there were the alleged attacks on the pipeline in Georgia," Bagirov says.

"All these prove that the risks are still there and they have increased [after the latest conflict]. This prompts the three countries on the pipeline route to reconsider the security system and take new measures. [Greater security] also serves the interests of companies and governments."

The ICG's Esser says that the current tensions in the Caucasus could ease soon and that might put all the gas and oil pipelines -- current and future -- back on track.

"If things move in positive directions politically, if things seem more stable, it may be that some of these things -- like shipping oil through the Georgian ports or expanding the BTC pipeline -- do become possible again so it's a bit speculative at this point" to be talking about the negative effects of the Russian-Georgia conflict.

But energy expert Bordonaro notes that Russia has always opposed these projects through the Caucasus, since they do not include Russia and threaten Russia's dominant influence over the vast resources of the Caspian region.

Some analysts have linked Russia's military moves in Georgia to oil and gas export routes, hinting that Moscow is seeking to assert its clear dominance in the region and, by doing so, reduce the possibilities of any more energy export routes being built there that would further reduce what Bordonaro called Russia's "leverage" toward the West.

Sponsors of those pipeline projects, mainly European, have not yet shown publicly that they are overly concerned about the conflict in Georgia, but they certainly will be watching very closely to see how the situation develops in the coming months.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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