Oil pipeline leaves a trail of conflict

Two authors trace an oil pipeline to an unwholesome tale of shadowy deals and displaced communities.

The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London
by James Marriott and Mike Minio-Paluello
Verso, 18 July 2011

There is a constant stream of books aiming to lift the lid on an oil world of power and petro-dollars, but as with many drilling rigs, the well often turns out to be dry. The best books on this lifeblood of the modern economy, and environmental scourge, have tended to come from insiders such as the Pulitzer prizewinning energy economist Daniel Yergin, and former BP boss John Browne. But these represent the view from behind big office desks.

James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, in contrast, know the industry from a decade of campaigning against it. They have taken as their subject BP’s $4 billion USD pipeline running from the Caspian sea to the Mediterranean. They follow its route and tell an unwholesome tale of shadowy deals and displaced communities.

The "oil road" begins on the Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan, where burning gas has leaked from the ground since the last Ice Age. This, the authors point out, is the most holy site of Zoroastrianism: "The oil-bearing rocks drew people to this place, not to extract petroleum and carry it off to some other site for burning, but to worship it here in the sheets of flame among the rocks. As other faiths arrived – Sunni and Shia Islam, Russian Orthodoxy, Marxism and capitalism – the holy fire of this peninsula was transformed into a material to be extracted and exported."

The first stirrings of the oil industry at Baku and its subsequent development under private entrepreneurs such as Ludvig Nobel (of the prize), is explained in colourful detail. We then follow the work of the Soviet technocrats.

But the main story begins with BP working with the modern-day rulers of Azerbaijan – and we learn what it takes for some of the world’s biggest oil companies to move 1 million barrels a day through a 1,770-km pipeline via Georgia to Turkey. In particular The Oil Road spells out how BP and the Azeri regime "sold" the idea to both bankers and local communities: "BP’s interconnectedness with the Aliyev regime goes beyond underwriting it with revenues. The company’s cooperation with the repressive regime operates on multiple levels: local executive powers in villages, the Azeri secret service, and the troops of the Special State Protection Service of Azerbaijan."

These are strong words to which BP should be given a chance to respond. I asked them myself whether they had any comments on these allegations but they declined.

The authors tackle a muscular subject with a delicate touch, noting how bright yellow stakes that mark the man-made path of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline contrast with a lush landscape and draw the eye from the "leisurely" circling of a steppe eagle. A lecture on the community investment programmes run by BP across Azerbaijan is given by a clearly bored spokesperson, "her black patent three inch heels tapping insistently against the table leg".

In some of the more dramatic scenes the authors run up against rather sinister state agencies just because they are reporting in the vicinity of the pipeline. But local activists and ordinary citizens are at the centre of the story.

In Qarabork, Mansura Ibishova has been involved in a dispute over BP’s plans to run the BTC pipeline under her house. She refused to move: "The thought of that oil, a million barrels a day, moving at two metres per second, flowing under the kitchen at night, the baby girl in her cot, Mansura asleep, her headscarf on the dresser beside her …"

There is alarming material on the way the pipeline becomes a focus of conflict between minority groups such as the Kurds and the Turkish state. And bizarre detail on how the oil-bearing tankers sailing from the Caspian move through the pirate-infested waters of the Middle East: all monitored and ultimately defended from Northwood HQ, "an extensive underground military complex beneath an oak wood in north-west London just inside the M25". The oil from the BTC pipeline arrives in Germany and then moves on to London, home of BP and the various financial institutions that support it.

There should, though, have been more to say about how the British players at the end of this remarkable vector of the modern globalised economy not only keep the oil we all use flowing but subvert the debate over the need for the UK and the wider world to move quickly to a low-carbon economy. After all, global warming is a threat greater than any unwholesome embrace of autocrat and oil corporation.

Browne’s 2010 book Beyond Business was subtitled an "inspirational memoir from a remarkable leader". The Oil Road is inspirational in the proper sense.

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