Georgia crisis spotlights pipeline insecurity

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The war in Georgia was not mainly about energy, as some have said, but it highlights the vulnerability of energy deliveries through the Caucasus and threatens future projects in the region.

Pipeline security can be quite a fascinating topic, even to the standards of a James Bond movie. The 1999 blockbuster “The World Is Not Enough” deals with the construction of an oil pipeline through the Caucasus, from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

It is called “King pipeline” in the film, but it is obvious which pipeline is being portrayed: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC), which transports oil from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli field in the Caspian Sea via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Ceyhan, a port on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Shortly before the war between Georgia and Russia captured headlines, parts of the BTC pipeline were shut down by an explosion and fire in eastern Turkey for which the rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party claimed responsibility. (Turkish officials denied the fire was manmade.)

The world’s second-largest oil pipeline, the BTC is a key element of the West’s strategy to diversify its energy imports and become less dependent on Russian deliveries.

Moscow wanted to have part of the BTC pipeline run through its territories, but when that was denied, it refused to join the project. British Petroleum leads the project companies, and Washington became one of its greatest supporters.

The BTC pipeline pumps oil to customers in Turkey and Western Europe, and Russia can’t do much about it - or can it?

Russia’s offensive into Georgia included attacks on military facilities, but there are also reports that the Russian military, while pulling out, is destroying vital energy infrastructure.

While Russia denies this, its military presence in the country forced shut a pipeline transporting some 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Azerbaijan to the Georgian port of Supsa, after shippers declared “force majeure,” a legal option contractors can fall back on if circumstances beyond their control make work at a pipeline impossible.

A natural gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Georgia and Turkey also was shut down for several days because of the fighting. All over Georgia, Russia - with its vessels and ground troops - has been blocking ports, streets and railroads, severely impeding deliveries and transit of oil-related products in and out of the country.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has stated repeatedly that his country, because of its transit role that undermines Russia’s energy influence, was a victim of aggression.

That some Central Asian countries - former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Caspian regions - have become a hub for Western energy deliveries is more than a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, experts say the Georgia-Russia conflict was not an energy war.

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