Oil and Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea Region

By Michael P. Croissant; Bülent Aras | Go to book overview

Foreword

Oil has thrust the Caspian region to the center of world geopolitics. The billions of dollars being wagered in the oil gamble has brought the Caspian states considerable interest from outside powers, well beyond that given to most other ex-Soviet-bloc countries. From the perspective of westerners—be they investors, policymakers, foreign affairs analysts, or observers of international politics—oil lends urgency to the Caspian region's complex disputes and politically tortured geography.

The excitement about Caspian oil calls to mind the history of the oil industry, when investments depended as much on complex geostrategic maneuverings among the great powers as on geology. The oil geology of the Caspian is not well-known at present. Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan clearly have significant reserves, although much uncertainty about the extent of the reserves will persist for several years until more exploration has been done. Based on current knowledge, it would seem that the Caspian is a world-class oil area, perhaps on the order of the North Sea, and by some estimates several times larger. However, the best estimates of the oil industry about poorly explored areas have been wrong in the past; twenty years ago, the waters off southern China were thought to hold world-class oil reserves.

Even if the Caspian region turns out to have less oil than expected now, it will still be an area of great interest to the major oil firms. The reason is simple: access to other world-class oil areas is either blocked or unattractive. The Persian Gulf is effectively off limits due to government monopolies, unrealistic terms, and political problems, especially the UN sanctions on Iraq. Similarly, political turmoil and nationalist resentment against foreign oil firms have made work in Russia unattractive. To be sure, the oil firms have many investment opportunities around the world, but most are in small fields and none have the potential of the Caspian. In other words, the Caspian is important to world oil companies whether or not it is important for world oil supplies.

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