Workers load Azeri crude oil from the BTC pipeline into an oil tanker, the Aegean Myth, at Ceyhan Marine Terminal in Turkey. It is a project that brings together the people and industries of many nations beyond Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey: The ship workers are Filipino, the tanker is Greek, and it is setting sail full of oil to Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
“Long-haul pipeline projects crossing multiple international borders are rare—they can be counted on one hand,” wrote Chow of CSIS in his report on the pipelines of West and Central Asia. “The more national borders such projects cross, the more difficult and complex they are to complete.” In that context, he says, the BTC pipeline has to be looked upon as a major achievement.
But the geopolitics of the region today is so different from the immediate post-Cold War period that Chow said it is questionable whether such a project could be built again today. For one thing, currently there is a much closer relationship between Turkey and Russia, including on energy.
And an important new factor, he says, is China. The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline, the most recent segment of which was completed in 2009, is longer than the BTC at 1,384 miles (2,230 kilometers) although it transports less oil. But Chow says China is willing to pre-invest in pipeline links with its Asian neighbors before economic volumes of oil are available. This speaks to China’s strategic concern in securing a diversity of oil supplies, and underscores that the world’s center of future oil demand growth lies to the east of the Caucasus, not west.
The more recent energy focus in Azerbaijan has been on natural gas, not oil, and whether another ambitious pipeline project will be developed to transport the fuel to the West--especially from the huge Shah Deniz gas field, also operated by BP. The field is offshore in the Caspian Sea, in close proximity to the oil fields that feed the BTC pipeline, and both rely on the Sangachal Terminal as delivery hub. Europe has sought a so-called Southern Corridor gas pipeline network from here through Turkey to help reduce its dependence on natural gas from Russia. Again, U.S. policy strongly supports the pipeline to the West. But costs and politics have been stumbling blocks.
Meanwhile, at the port of Ceyhan in Turkey, 1,447 tankers have been loaded with oil from the BTC pipeline since June 2006, says BP. That’s 1.1 billion barrels of crude oil pumped from the Caspian Sea and transported to the world across the centuries-old divides of culture, religion, geography, and politics.