By Antoine Blua,
Oil derricks on the shore of the Caspian Sea just outside the Azerbaijani
For years, the race to tap into the Caspian Sea's
vast oil and gas resources has outweighed any desire to protect its delicate
All five littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and
Turkmenistan -- have plans to further exploit the sea's estimated 44 billion
barrels of oil reserves.
Such projects mean drilling new wells, highlighting risks for an incident that
could cause a catastrophic oil spill in the landlocked sea -- the largest inland
body of water on earth.
Mais Gulaliyev, co-chairman of Azerbaijan's Green Party, tells RFE/RL's
Azerbaijani Service he has called for measures to prevent such a threat from
"The accident in the Gulf of Mexico shows us that such a disaster could happen
anywhere. The United States, with its super-modern technologies, is barely
capable of stopping this disaster," Gulaliyev says. "You can imagine the scale
of the damages to the environment from such incidents in countries like
At least 5,000 barrels of oil a day have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico
since an April 20 explosion destroyed a drilling rig leased and operated by BP,
threatening unique wildlife refuges, beaches, and fishing grounds along the
southern U.S. coast.
History Of Environmental Damage
The dangers of the Caspian Sea's oil fields gained international attention
during the last days of the Soviet Union, when a well at Kazakhstan's huge
Tengiz oil field blew out in 1985. The well burned for more than a year before
it was eventually put out.
Makhamet Khakimov tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that little has been done since
the incident in which 3 million tons of oil and tens of billions of cubic meters
of different kinds of gases were burned, harming the population and wildlife in
the Atyrau region.
Dozens of platforms are currently operating across the Caspian Sea, mainly in
Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which have been the focus of Western investment.
Oil exploration and production work have also developed in the remaining three
littoral states. LUKoil last month kicked off commercial oil production in the
Russian sector of the sea, launching the Yury Korchagin platform. Iran earlier
this year started drilling its first exploratory well in the southern Caspian
Sea -- the deepest part of the sea -- to search for oil. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan
is continuing exploration of Caspian shelf deposits along with foreign partners.
Environmentalists say investments in energy projects have often been made to the
detriment of local communities.
On May 13, Kazakh Deputy Minister for Environmental Protection Eldana
Sadvakasova acknowledged that with the oil price decreasing, oil-extracting
companies had "stopped performance of some measures or postponed them for the
In February, a Kazakh court fined the onshore Karachaganak natural-gas venture,
which includes BG, Eni, Chevron, and LUKoil, for environmental violations
including excessive waste dumping. The village of Berezovka, which is situated
less than 5 kilometers from the field and is exposed to the field's toxic
emissions, has been fighting for justice for years.
Environmentalists say energy development is also threatening already endangered
species of fish such as the Beluga, Stellate, and Russian sturgeon, the kilka
(Caspian sprat), as well as the Caspian seal. In Turkmenistan, energy
development is causing particular risk to the Krasovodsk Nature Reserve, home to
hundreds of thousands of birds and more than 40 mammal species.
Caspian Sea region
Greater Supervision, Transparency Needed
Energy firms operating in the region, however, argue that they are doing their
utmost to ensure the safety of their infrastructure.
"I assure you that we have done and will continue to do everything possible to
ensure the full technical security of all our operations in the Caspian," says
Tamam Bayatli, public relations manager for BP Azerbaijan, which is involved in
a number of exploration and production projects in the country.
"It has been and will remain our No. 1 priority
to ensure technical safety and security of the people as well as to protect the
Environmentalists and civil-society activists say the authorities should better
supervise the energy companies' work and call for the terms of
production-sharing agreements between energy companies and host governments in
the Caspian region to be made public.
Kate Watters, executive director of Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based
nongovernmental organization that focuses on environmental justice, says the
public should be informed about the investments being made and about the
environmental and social protection needed to be put in place to safeguard the
environment and the health of the local inhabitants.
"The oil companies need to be held to the highest standards, and those standards
maybe need to be reexamined," Watters says. "We have a case [in the Gulf of
Mexico] where governments are relying on the expertise of private corporations
and putting at risk entire populations and ecosystems based on promises that
need to be demonstrably fulfilled before a project starts."
Improving Regulation, Or Just Talk?
At a conference in Astrakhan on April 28, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
said all work related to the development of fields in the Russian sector of the
Caspian is being conducted "in strict compliance with international
environmental standards," applying zero discharge technology. This means that
waste resultant of production activities is not discharged into the sea, but is
collected before being rendered harmless and reprocessed. Putin also voiced hope
that companies from other countries operating in the region will join in this
On the regional level, the five countries around the Caspian Sea have ratified
the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the
Caspian Sea, or Tehran Convention, and thus established a framework to jointly
address and solve environmental problems in and around the sea.
But Watters is skeptical, saying the absence of public participation in the
convention's preparation resulted in a relatively meaningless document.
As BP and the U.S. authorities battle to contain the spill in the Gulf of Mexico
and issues of responsibility are being investigated, the U.S. administration has
said it will review environmental procedures for offshore drilling.
And in Russia, the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, is considering the
need for drafting a law on "environmental control and protection of seas from
The head of the Duma's Committee for Natural Resources, Nature Management, and
Environment, Yevgeny Tugolukov, announced the move on May 5 in comments on what
conclusions Russia should make in the wake of the environmental disaster in the
Gulf of Mexico.
And at a cabinet meeting on May 4, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov
instructed the ministries for oil and gas and for environmental protection to
inspect the country's oil-drilling platforms.
But Crude Accountability's Watters doubts the Kazakh measure will be effective.
She notes that while BP "has this reputation all over the world for having the
best technology, for being green, for being sustainable," the company is
responsible for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico "and had absolutely no plan in
place if something like this were to happen. So we have no guarantees that any
Western company working in the Caspian would act any differently."
So while Watters believes the Kazakh government is acting correctly, "my
question would be: 'Do they have the capacity to take care of an accident,
should one happen?' And I think the answer is likely 'no.'"
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani and Kazakh services contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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