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The Caspian Sea: oil and gas versus caviar

The overwhelming focus of mainstream Western literature on the Caspian Sea and its environs is on their vast oil and gas resources – on controlling them, extracting them, and “getting them out” to the European and world markets. Close attention is always paid to the commercial and strategic competition between the Western powers – mainly the United States and the European Union – and their rivals for control over the Caspian region – Russia, China and Iran.

As for the people who actually live in the region, they get a look-in only insofar as they may assist or impede Western business in this worthy endeavour. Nonhuman species, of course, are ignored completely.

A unique ecosystem

And yet the inland sea that we call the Caspian is a unique ecosystem. It once abounded in wildlife, including many marine species found nowhere else (the Caspian seal, the Caspian gull, etc.). Already weakened by overfishing, untreated sewage, and other human damage, the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea – like those of the Gulf of Mexico, northern Alberta and southeastern Nigeria – is now being rapidly degraded by oil pollution.

Even though oil and gas development is still at a fairly early stage, the worst affected parts of the sea, such as the waters around Baku and Sumgait in Azerbaijan, are already devoid of life. The whole ecosystem is probably doomed. For one thing, the sea level is steadily rising – one effect of the region’s geological instability (as a landlocked water body, its level is independent of that of the world ocean). A rise of 2.5 meters since 1978 has inundated almost 800 rigs. These submerged rigs are a major and ever expanding source of oil seepage.
Recently I translated a series of papers about the Caspian issued by a Russian international relations institute. I was intrigued to discover that the Russian analysts, unlike their Western colleagues, dwell at length on the ecological costs and risks of Caspian oil and gas development.

The caviar factor

It is revealing to consider why this should be so. It does not reflect any general Russian concern with protecting the environment. Russian experts do not seem to worry overmuch about the ecological effects of oil and gas development in Siberia or the Arctic. Some factor specific to the Caspian must be involved.

That factor is fish – but above all, sturgeon, and especially its roe, known as caviar. As Bystrova points out:

Even comparatively recently, the Caspian was capable of an annual yield of 500-550,000 tonnes of fish, with the bulk of the catch consisting of valuable varieties (sturgeon, white salmon, etc.). In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union produced 2,500 tonnes of black caviar annually, which was about 90 percent of world output... The biological potential of the Northern Caspian is about $37 billion. This sum is comparable with the value of the enormous hydrocarbon deposits recently discovered in this part of the sea. But while Caspian oil and gas will in time be used up, biological resources, if rationally exploited, are renewable and therefore practically everlasting.

The Russian oil company Lukoil operates in the North Caspian, so Russian hydrocarbon and fishing interests are in conflict here. This makes for a certain ambiguity in Russian policy. Nevertheless, Russia is much more inclined to favour constraints on Caspian hydrocarbon development than are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, which depend much more heavily on Caspian oil and gas. Iran aligns itself with Russia out of concern for its own fisheries (it has enormous amounts of oil and gas, but not in the Caspian).

Crossing the Caspian

The Russian literature especially emphasizes the real ecological dangers of transporting oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea, either by tanker or through underwater pipelines laid on the seabed. Russia itself relies on south-north land pipelines and has no need for trans-Caspian routes. However, Western businessmen and politicians seek to avoid routes into Europe through Russian or Iranian territory, so they fund projects that envision crossing the Caspian very appealing.

Western analysts never seem to mention the environmental problems associated with underwater pipelines. Are they deferring to the enthusiasm of their masters or are they just ignorant? In either case their silence is remarkable, because some of these problems cast doubt on the feasibility of using such pipelines at all. The Caspian seabed is steeply inclined in many places, consists of loose and crumbly material, and is prone to gas releases, eruptions of mud volcanoes, frequent seismic tremors and occasional earthquakes. Any of these events could easily set off a landslide that breaks and displaces a section of an underwater pipeline.

Again, Russian policy experts have no general objection to messing about with geologically unstable land masses. The Yamal Peninsula in northeastern Siberia is every bit as unstable as the Caspian, but that is never given as a reason to stop exploiting its huge deposits of natural gas.

Playing cards

As we see from this example, ecological concerns are not, after all, completely ignored in the game of capitalist politics. Like all other concerns, however, they are constantly reduced to cards in the hands of players in the ongoing competition among sectoral and national sections of the world capitalist class. Each card is played when and only when the player holding it decides that it is convenient and profitable for him to play it. And so it will go on until we gather our strength and intervene, confiscate the cards and close down the game.

The Socialist Standard, No. 1275, November 2010

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