Forty miles out in the Caspian Sea from the Kazakhstan port of Aktau, and two and a half miles down, is the Kashagan oilfield. It may be one of the world’s biggest fields, 50 billion barrels, the size of the North Sea reserves. Or it may be a dud. But while the Offshore Kazakhstan International Development Company (Shell, BritGas, ExxonMobil, TotalFinaElf, Agip, Inpex, Phillips Petroleum, BP Amoco and Norway’s Statoil) drills holes to find out, politicians look for a way to bring the oil to market.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has a short-term and a long-term plan, both involving the proposed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, from Azerbaijan’s capital on the Caspian across Georgia to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean. The short-term plan would use tankers to move oil from Aktau to Baku; in the long term, an Aktau-Baku pipeline would carry the load.
But Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan is unbuilt and unfunded, 800 miles and maybe $4 billion of pipe dream across some of the world’s most politically unsettled territory. The United States has long pushed hard for this route, seen as the key to freeing Caspian oil, and gas from Turkmenistan, from effective control by Russia or Iran. So far, investors have made nice sounds but signed no checks. If the Kashagan field proves out, however, the reward-to-risk ratio of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line could suddenly look attractive.
While more oil could raise the reward, peace in Georgia could lower the risk. Recent talks between Georgia and Turkey move in the right direction. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told Georgia’s visiting President Eduard Shevardnadze that “Georgia’s problems are also our problems, and Georgia’s security is also our security.” Beyond the kind words, the Turkish side offered to promote a resolution of the separatist movements in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Ajaria regions. That could be important: Because it is home to an Abkhaz population and trades with Abkhazia across the Black Sea, Turkey could provide the wretched little region a political and economic alternative to the mischief-making Russians.