US tries to secure Central Asian oil
US plans to assert its control over Central Asia's hydrocarbon wealth — oil and gas — are running into problems with governments in the region and also with the big oil companies. Washington wants to route the region's oil and gas through countries it regards as "friendly" (Turkey and the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia) and away from Russia and Iran. Its preferred option is to build a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. This route is preferred because it is the furthest of the proposed routes from Russian power in the region, and because it integrates Turkey even more solidly into the US's regional strategy. It is, however, the longest and most expensive of the possible options. Azerbaijan's oil and gas fields are being developed by the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), a consortium headed by the Western oil giants BP and Amoco. These companies favour the cheaper and shorter option of expanding the existing Baku-Supsa pipeline across to a Georgian Black Sea port Turkey has also got in for its cut, demanding US$21 per tonne as a transit fee for everything carried by the proposed pipeline. The oil companies and Azerbaijani Government refuse to pay more than US$18 per tonne. There is big money at stake here. AIOC is planning a US$3.1 billion expansion of its Azeri operations, confident of getting that back and a lot more besides. Increased tension between the US and Russia over NATO and the Kosovo conflict, and the growing resurgence of the Communists in Russia have spurred the US to accelerate its plans in the region. It is now in a race to solidify its strategic arrangements with the governments in the Caspian region. In February this year the US successfully levered another former Soviet republic, Turkmenia, into having its gas piped across the Caspian instead of through Russia (or, equally unthinkable, Iran). At the same time the US is assisting the fomenting of separatism in southern regions of Russia — like Chechnya and Daghestan — that just happen to straddle strategic Russian oil pipeline routes. As far as oil and gas are concerned, the US wants to turn the Caspian into an American-dominated lake, simultaneously guaranteeing the resources to Anglo-US oil companies and denying them to Russia. The recent disastrous earthquake on a fault line running across northern Turkey has probably strengthened the case for the pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, which is in southern Turkey. But the whole project has become endangered by Turkish greed. At the same time, the resulting delays in starting, let alone completing either pipeline, are jeopardising the economic health of Azerbaijan. Baku- Ceyhan may be Washington's first choice, but an expansion of Baku-Supsa is cheaper and, more important, faster to build.