The Mystery of the Caspian Oil Boom Part One

By Rasizade, Alec | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Mystery of the Caspian Oil Boom Part One


Rasizade, Alec, Contemporary Review


IT is hard to think of an industry that has a hype machine as phenomenal as the potential Caspian energy industry. Ever since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the Caspian Basin has been touted as one of the world's largest new energy sources. This was partly because the region had been off-limits to the West for so long that its potential was genuinely unknown. In addition, the political instability in the Persian Gulf had underscored the need to find dependable energy resources outside the Middle East. As a result, the premise of an 'enormous' Caspian energy wealth was invented as a justification for geopolitical manoeuvres by Western powers to fill the strategic void left in the region after the Russian withdrawal.

But it is now becoming increasingly clear that the hydrocarbon deposits in the Caspian Basin are much lower than has been believed in the West, that the Caspian's energy promise has been deliberately exaggerated and that production from the area will never make a major contribution to the world's energy security. Whatever the final size of reserves, it is now obvious that much of the talk of Caspian oil was a spectacular bluff. When the late Azeri president Heydar Aliev painted a majestic picture of the Caspian energy potential at the 2001 World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland), his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, famously retorted: 'Is there any water in the Caspian, or is it only oil?'

As the Canadian researcher Robert Cutler once observed, the Caspian oil rush was akin to a high-stakes game of cards. It was complicated further by the fact that the cards were being played within another strategic game of chess, with other rules, played by the great powers at a large geopolitical chessboard. With a relative consolidation of the chessboard into patterns, at least temporarily, the Caspian oil game is now more or less settled. Although the bluffing survives from the old days of the card game, strategy as opposed to tactics has become the conditioning environment in the region, as in a chess game.

Instead of the politically bloated appraisal of 200 billion barrels in ostensible Caspian oil deposits (compared with Saudi Arabia's 262 billion) valued at 4 trillion US dollars, exuberantly cultivated for the past decade by the Department of State to justify its own strategy there, we are talking today of only 18 billion to 30 billion barrels, according to another US government agency, the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris range from 17 to 32 billion barrels. As for natural gas, there is an agreement that proven reserves are about 6.5 trillion cubic metres, with Turkmenistan holding the largest deposits outside Russia.

Five major projects are currently underway in the Caspian Basin--four of which account for some 70 per cent of total reserves. These are the offshore Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli oil fields block and the Shah Deniz offshore gas field in Azerbaijan, Tengiz and Karachaganak onshore, and Kashagan offshore fields in Kazakstan. While other prospects exist, particularly in Kazakstan, they are not likely to make any major impact on regional production in the future. The famous old onshore oil fields around Baku, which in the early twentieth century produced half of the entire world oil production, are now exhausted, and new deposits have not been found.

All post-Soviet geological explorations have as yet failed to find sufficiently large new deposits, except for the Kashagan oil field in Kazakstan's sector of the sea discovered by the Italian state energy concern ENI. After drilling of many dry wells, the area that had been pushed by the US Department of State as an alternative to the Persian Gulf was dismissed latterly as a product of Washington propaganda.

Caspian Oil and Global Energy Needs

The industrial world is now looking for oil beyond the Middle East. The resources found in new areas will be critical to ensuring global energy stability. …

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