The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the politics of oil

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Every time critics of the West point to oil as a major determining factor in shaping Western policies towards the rest of the world, Westerners scoff, dismissing such critics as paranoid conspiracy theorists. However, the reality is that oil is indeed a major, if often down-played, element of western strategic thinking, even if it is not necessarily “all about oil”, as critics often say.

The point was emphasised on May 25, when a new oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast was inaugurated at a ceremony at the Sangachal Oil Terminal south of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where the pumps to push the first oil through the pipeline were switched on. The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, 1,090 miles (1,750km) long, and designed to carry 1 millions barrels of oil a day from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean when it reaches full capacity (scheduled for 2009), has been built by a consortium of Western oil companies led by BP, which also includes the American oil giant Halliburton, closely linked with US vice-president Dick Cheney and other senior figures in the Bush administration. Its building was begun in 1998; planning for it has been going in for much longer. Not by chance, the pipeline, after winding through Azerbaijan, Georgia and eastern Turkey, arrives at the Ceyhan Maritime Export Terminal on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, right next to the major American airbase at Incirlik. The fact that the project has cost more than $4bn — 75 percent of which has come from bank loans underwritten by western governments, and 25 percent from governments directly — is itself a sign of both the scale of profits that the Western companies hope to make from it, and its importance to Western governments. In future, it also has the potential to link up with gas pipelines running across the Caspian from Kazakhstan.

When the pipeline is fully operational, which is expected to take another five years, it will be capable of carrying 1 percent of the world’s daily oil requirements. It has been designed to enable Western companies to access the major oil reserves of the Caspian Sea without having to deal with either Russia, which Western governments regard as a strategic rival, or Iran, which is regarded as an enemy. The oil reserves of the Caspian Sea are regarded as a useful alternative source of oil to the Muslim Middle East, which is regarded as unreliable because of the widespread hatred of America among the region’s people. It also provides an alternative to the existing pipeline owned by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which leads from Baku to Novorossiysk in Georgia, which is regarded as being too much under Russian control.

Such is America’s determination to gain control over Caspian oil that it was a major factor in the West’s intervention in Kosova, where the US has built Camp Bandsteel, one of its largest permanent military bases. Before the bombing of Yugoslavia, supposedly to save the Muslims of Kosova from the Serbs, the Washington Post insisted in an editorial that “With the Middle East increasingly fragile, we will need bases and fly-over rights in the Balkans to protect Caspian Sea oil.” (The US intervention in Kosova is often cited as proof that it is not anti-Muslim, and in fact has acted in the past to save Muslims from attack by their enemies.)

The West’s military interventions in the Middle East are also determined largely by their interest in the region’s oil. It is now well-established that the US had been willing to support the Taliban if they had agreed to build an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan; it is not a coincidence that Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, appointed after the invasion in late 2001, was Zalmay Khalilzad, a former consultant to the American oil company Unocol, who had actually been involved in planning the Afghan pipeline and negotiating with the Taliban about it from 1995 to 1997. American officials also openly admit that oil was a major consideration in both the first Gulf War in 1990-1, and the neo-cons’ determination to attack Iraq once they came to power in 2001.

In other areas too, oil and gas are central. In March this year, during her first trip to India and Pakistan, Condoleezza Rice pressured both countries to abandon plans for a major gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India, one project by which Iran hopes to break the US’s attempts to encircle it. Australia, a key ally of the US, is currently deeply involved in negotiations with East Timor about the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, off the coast of East Timor. It is now widely recognised that this, rather than any altruistic concern for the Timorese suffering at the hands of Indonesia, was a major factor in the West’s support for the Timorese independence movement. There has also been a major Western move into West Africa in recent years; Africa contains about 8 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, more than those of north America or the former Soviet Union. Sub-Saharan Africa and the regions of the Gulf of Guinea have seen major oil exploration projects in recent years.

Everything the West does is justified in terms of fighting terrorism, or promoting democracy and human rights in the rest of the world. Nobody should forget, however, that its real reasons are less high-profile but much more important. The opening of the BTC pipeline was a lot lower-profile, and received a lot less coverage, than the inauguration of a “democratic” government in Iraq, for example. But no one should doubt where the West’s main interests really lie.

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