New Internationalist

The North Caspian - what am I bid?

Issue 384

Horatio Morpurgo’s travels to the newest oil frontier provoke some uncomfortable questions, from sturgeon with muscular dystrophy to oil corporations in deep denial.

When the first Soviet atom bomb was exploded in 1949 what the world heard was the starting gun for the arms race. It was a less abstract sensation for Kazakhstan, where the test took place and where uranium exploration had begun the previous year. A new phase in the country’s fateful relationship with its own mineral wealth was under way. In due course this vast territory would ‘host’ some 470 nuclear weapons tests. All such weapons were returned to Russia after independence in 1991 and the clean-up remains a contentious issue.

Aktau, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, was founded in 1963 as large uranium deposits were discovered nearby. Intended as a showcase city for the then-new technology, its power station and desalination plant were both nuclear-powered. The city’s main east-west axis still runs between a war memorial which looks quite a lot like a missile silo opening, and the ‘statue’ of a Russian jet fighter, frozen in mid-take-off.

The place feels less sure of itself these days. Uranium mining in this region ended in 1994 and the city’s BN-350 fast reactor was shut down in 1997. The old botanical gardens have reverted to wilderness and the glamour has faded from the row upon row of identical south-facing apartment blocks.

But hardly had the weapons been returned to sender than the new country’s fate became once again inseparable from its abundant ‘raw commodities’. There are two major pipelines now under construction in Kazakhstan: one will connect the Caspian oilfields with China and the other will connect the massive new offshore field at Kashagan with a terminal at Aktau. Here, in full view of the city, the oil will be transferred to a specially built fleet of Russian freighters and shipped across the Caspian to Baku in Azerbaijan. From there it will flow along a recently opened pipeline over the Caucasus to southern Turkey, from which Western markets will be supplied.

For environmentalists the focus of concern has been and remains Kashagan. Discovered in 2000, it is the first full-scale project on the North Caspian shelf. The water which covers this shelf is only a few metres deep. Its salinity is also very low, with the Volga delta close by, so that it freezes over each winter. Thousands of seals haul out onto the ice to have their pups and these seals are themselves a relic of just one phase of the Caspian’s long and strange history. During the last ice age it formed the southernmost part of a sea reaching northwards across what is now Russia. The Caspian still has its own breed of salmon as a result, as well as its own species of seal.

The Caspian’s famous sturgeon meanwhile easily supplied the bulk of the world’s caviare so long as fishing remained under some effective form of regulation. This has not been the case since 1991 and the result appears to have been an unprecedented collapse of fish numbers. Heavy metal contamination of the Volga has been rising consistently for 15 years – copper, zinc, lead, cadmium and mercury all exceed Kazakh government limits by a factor of five or more. Many sturgeon appear to have developed a form of muscular dystrophy. Liver abnormalities are now endemic.

To the east of the Caspian semi-arid deserts stretch away into Central Asia. The contrast between these two environments, onshore and offshore, could hardly be more stark, but the attraction for modern big business lies about five kilometres below both of them. The Kashagan oilfield will consist of about 100 wells operating from 17 artificial islands, situated between 40 and 70 kilometres from the delta of the River Ural. It is thought to contain roughly 11 billion barrels.

It is futile to expect a country sunk in post-Soviet depression to pass up the opportunities afforded it by big oil strikes. But what of the foreign companies here, for which the host country's poverty is all opportunity?

Oil found at this depth is known as ‘old oil’. The ‘younger’ reserves exploited in Kazakhstan for more than a century do not bear comparison with the scale, or chemical composition, of what is now being extracted. Three of the world’s largest drilling platforms are already employed by a local subsidiary of ChevronTexaco at the Tengiz onshore field, the fifth-largest oilfield in the world.

The problems peculiar to the extraction of such oil are well known from Chevron’s experience there. It is pumped at a temperature of about 125°C and at enormously high pressure – typically about 1,000 kg per cm2. In addition some 25 per cent of reserves are in the form of ‘sour gas’ – mainly hydrogen sulphide, with sulphur dioxide also present in large quantities.

Tengiz is probably the closest we can get to an idea of what to expect at Kashagan – a deposit of similar proportions and chemical composition. A fire there in 1985 shot a column of flame 200 metres into the air and took more than a year to extinguish. This, it is argued, is because the field was then being run by a Russian company not technically equal to the task. Similar oil is found in western Canada, however. A blow-out at a remote field in Alberta in 2000 still took a month to bring under control. Also in 2000, the first year of drilling at Kashagan, an estimated 11,000 seals, bleeding from the nose and ears, were washed up dead in the North Caspian. The multinational consortium, led by an Italian company, Agip, was worried enough to pay a Russian university to investigate what had happened. It was concluded that death was from canine distemper, against which the seals’ immunity defences were abnormally low.

This eastern shoreline is also a migration route for the more than 200 bird species that travel each year between Iran and western Siberia. During the spring migration bird densities as high as 6,500 per square kilometre have been recorded in the Ural delta. But along with migratory whooper and mute swans, resident flamingos and pelicans have been in decline for more than 10 years and were recently placed on the country’s red list of endangered species. The gas flares at Kashagan recently attracted and then killed hundreds of migrating bulbuls, prompting a demand for compensation and assurances from the oil companies that in future they will halt production during the peak migration periods.

But the Government’s concern for the environment should not be taken entirely at face value. This is a regime now considering new legislation that will force all NGOs to ‘re-register’, after recent upheavals in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It finds itself a ‘much-consulted partner’ as consumer-economies east and west, new and old, do the sums on their projected energy needs for the 21st century. It holds some very strong cards and a few hundred dead bulbuls can be turned to useful propaganda effect. The more closely you look into the new economic paradigm establishing itself in this region, the more tortuous the reasoning of the different players begins to seem. But even as you lose yourself among these ever more intricate motives, there are questions on another level that don’t seem to get asked at all.

The Kashagan field, for example, is expected eventually to pump some 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. Agip’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) includes calculations of the refinery’s projected greenhouse gas emissions for 2009. These will amount to the equivalent of two million tonnes of CO2, or 1.3 per cent of Kazakhstan’s total emissions for 2001. ‘The impact on climate change,’ it concludes, ‘will be negligible.’ It points meanwhile to the benefits that will accrue locally.

These points are probably true as far as they go. It is futile to expect a country sunk in post-Soviet depression to pass up the opportunities afforded it by big oil strikes. But what of the foreign companies here, for which the host country’s poverty is all opportunity? Any oil company knows full well that what drives climate change is not the refining but the burning of fossil fuels. There exists no serious alternative to educating future generations in reduced dependency on hydrocarbons. It’s hard to see how pumping more than a million barrels per day plus training up an entire society for long-term total dependency on fossil fuels will have a ‘negligible’ effect on climate change. But it’s only an EIA. Of course Agip is only extracting, marketing and delivering a product. If customers take it into their heads to go and burn it, that’s their own lookout.

But if you listen to everyone defending their own ‘negligible’ part in the process, that ends with droughts and retreating glaciers and plainly something is adding up wrong. You are left with the sense of a culture, a global one, your own, defending itself continually by reference to its local effect because its global impact is just too frightening to face.

Further north along the Caspian shoreline, just upstream from the Ural delta, the same conundrum is at work shaping this country’s future. Whole districts of the Kazakh ‘oil-hub’, Atyrau, have already been transformed by the new wealth. It has a new bridge across the Ural and a new university building courtesy of Chevron. It has been able to build itself a new mosque and surround a new central plaza with banks and engineering company headquarters. A stroll around this town is a salutary experience for anyone accustomed, as so many of us are, to deriding ‘the big oil companies’. Nobody talks like that in Atyrau, because the only realistic alternative to them was a continued agonizing decline against the backdrop of decaying Soviet-era infrastructure. It’s much easier to wish that on someone else than to wish it for oneself.

From this truth the companies draw the inference that they are a benefit to the countries they work in and hence net contributors to global prosperity. But, as we’ve seen, to draw that inference requires blinding oneself to a bigger picture of planetary degradation that is no longer seriously contested by anybody.

There is another conclusion that suggests itself in a place like Kazakhstan. It is that the system which ‘triumphed’ over the Soviet Union had no serious programme beyond the defeat of its rival and the securing of its resources. The advantages of the Western way – its freedoms of movement and expression – would indeed now be made available, but only on terms agreeable to big business. Meaning, on at least one count, that they would not be made available at all. On any logic other than that of shareholders, opening an oilfield on the scale of Kashagan now is a profoundly questionable act. To do so 50-odd kilometres from the Ural delta is breathtaking effrontery. But the new order sees to it that no one, in Kazakhstan at least, will express that truth to any effect. And where else can it be expressed to serious effect?

By all ecologically measurable indices, the ideology of big business is at least as deeply in denial as its predecessor in this part of the world. Set out magnificent botanical gardens in a city founded on the atom bomb. Carefully construct your pipeline to go round a river delta, as temperatures rise all over the planet from the oil that flows along it. What do either of these gestures ‘prove’, beyond an enduring capacity for self-deception?

Horatio Morpurgo is a regular contributor to the NI on issues of environmental politics.

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