GLOBAL MARKET BRIEF: THE GEOPOLITICS OF BAKU-TBILISI-CEYHAN
June 1 2006
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a year behind schedule and
some 30 percent over budget, is now a reality. Though the project
will not be officially inaugurated until July 13, the approximately
1,118 mile, $4 billion line has already begun operations, with crude
already pouring into storage tanks overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
By the end of 2006, the BTC project will be pumping 300,000 barrels
per day (bpd) of Caspian crude to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the
Mediterranean Sea. By 2008, the BTC will meet its full throughput
capacity of 1 million bpd. On average, half of that crude will come
from Azerbaijan and the other half will come from Kazakhstan.
That was not the original plan.
Initially, the bulk of the BTC crude was expected to come from
Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s reserves, however, did not live up to the
hype, requiring an expectations adjustment. Regardless, the BTC project
went ahead as planned — and it was damn lucky Kazakhstan was brought
on board. Kazakh crude will cross the Caspian Sea in small oil tankers
for loading into the BTC at Baku, Azerbaijan. Kazakh and Azerbaijani
authorities expect to finalize all the agreements needed to make this
arrangement possible before the end of June.
Such a business plan makes one wonder about the economic underpinnings
of the BTC — and well it should. Of the various means of shipping
crude out of the Caspian region, the BTC is the least economically
viable. Not only does the BTC negotiate three states, it also traverses
long stretches of mountainous territory. Unlike natural gas, moving
liquid oil — every seven barrels of which weighs about a ton — up and
down mountains is hardly child’s play from an engineering standpoint.
It would have been far easier, cheaper and faster to simply link the
Azerbaijani oil fields north into the Russian pipeline network or
south into the Iranian network. Throwing in Kazakhstan, which is on
the wrong side of the Caspian Sea, left economists doubly perplexed.
Moreover, the line ends on the Mediterranean, a body of water whose
littoral states already have enough oil. Caspian crude is needed in
Asia, not Europe.
And that’s not all. In addition to being technically challenging,
expensive and geographically questionable, the line also threads its
way through some extremely dangerous regions. Before the pipeline even
gets out of Azerbaijan, it must skirt around the secessionist region
of Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke from Baku during the transition from
In Georgia, things are far worse. There, the BTC was routed to avoid
not one, but three restive regions. The first two — South Ossetia and
Abkhazia — broke away from Tbilisi in 1993. Even after 13 years of
on-again, off-again ethnic cleansing, more ethnic Georgians live in
these regions than Ossetians or Abkhazians, respectively. The other
region — Samtskhe-Javakheti — is an ethnic Armenian enclave that,
while still part of Georgia, hosts a Russian military base that poses
a challenge to Georgian sovereignty over the region. And while Georgia
and neighboring Chechnya consider themselves on the same side in the
sense that they both oppose Russian activity in the region, Chechen
fighters played a decisive role in fighting against the Georgians
in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian secessionist wars. The winds change
quickly in the Caucasus, and when they change, they change completely.
Even in Turkey — a far more cohesive state than either Azerbaijan or
Georgia — the line follows an expensive and winding route to avoid
the country’s increasingly restive Kurdish regions.
In all cases, the BTC project’s operation will flood cash into the
coffers of the states involved. Turkey expects to make $300 million
annually from transit fees alone, while Azerbaijan’s gross domestic
product will likely double within five years as a result of the
project. A fair portion of such money will undoubtedly be used
to assert the power of Ankara, Tbilisi and Baku over Diyarbakir,
Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, Akhalkalaki and Stepanakert — giving all of
those secessionist regions reason to want the BTC offline. If the
Iraq experience has taught the oil industry anything, it is that
oil pipelines are notoriously easy to disrupt, and the BTC is more
than five times the length of Iraq’s northern export system, which
insurgents have essentially shut down since 2003.
So why build an economically questionable and militarily insecure
The answer is geopolitics. The Soviet Union’s dissolution left
Azerbaijan and Georgia shattered and impoverished. They were also left
sandwiched between Russia, their former colonial master, and Iran,
which had a vested interest in ensuring that its own 17-million-strong
Azerbaijani population did not take any cues from the now-independent
8-million-strong Azerbaijan to their north. The American-European
solution was to link the two states in an east-west corridor to
themselves and Turkey, rather than simply allow them to languish in
Russia’s shadow or fall into the orbit of a resurgent Iran — and they
directed their respective government-linked financial institutions
to help finance the project.
The greatest threat to the BTC project comes from Russia. Moscow
serves as the ultimate (if informal) security guarantor of Abkhazia,
South Ossetia, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Nagorno-Karabakh — regions
Russia has backed in order to keep pro-Western Azerbaijan and Georgia
off-balance. As the project was specifically designed to cut Russia
out of the loop, one can easily imagine what the Russians would
like to see done to the pipeline. And considering Moscow’s cordial
relations with these secessionist (or quasi-secessionist, in the case
of Samtskhe-Javakheti) regions, one can equally easily imagine what
tools could be brought to bear against the pipeline.
Yet, irony of ironies, the greatest hope for the BTC also comes
from Russia, which is, if anything, actually working to restrain
secessionist groups in the region from acting against the project.
The single largest investor in the BTC, as well as the oil fields in
Azerbaijan that will help fill it, is supermajor BP Amoco. BP also
happens to be the single largest foreign investor in Russia proper,
and its merger with local oil firm TNK was personally arranged and
blessed by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
While relations between Russia and the West are certainly cooling,
they have not yet reached the point where Russia is willing to take
serious economic hits to protect its geographic space.
But in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the Russians
have been reformatting their foreign and security policies into more
confrontational forms, and have not shied away from using energy
policy as a tool to further national goals. Whether Russia will
attempt to take the BTC offline is not a question of if, but of when,
and the only restriction on Russian action is a pending decision at
the highest level of government on whether to advance Russian policies
to a new stage.
Project participants in the BTC include BP (30.1 percent), the State
Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (25 percent), Unocal Corp.
(8.9 percent), Norway’s Statoil (8.71 percent), the Turkish Petroleum
Corp. (6.53 percent), Italy’s ENI (5 percent), France’s Total (5
percent), Japan’s Itochu Corp. (3.4 percent), ConocoPhillips (2.5
percent), Japan’s Inpex Corp. (2.5 percent) and Amerada Hess Corp.