MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
They're calling it the Silk Road of the 21st century. The first section of an 1,100-mile oil pipeline was officially opened today in Azerbaijan. The underground pipeline will carry oil from the Caspian Sea through Georgia and on to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The idea is to reduce dependence both on oil from the Middle East and on existing Russian pipelines. Thomas Goltz writes about the Transcaucasus region and has traveled the route of the pipeline.
Let's explain first, Mr. Goltz, how Caspian oil travels now.
Mr. THOMAS GOLTZ (Author, "Azerbaijan Diary"): Well, there are several export routes out of the Caspian right now. Most go up to the Black Sea via pipelines, and that becomes problematic because all that oil has to get on tankers that have to negotiate the Bosphorus through the very middle of Istanbul, which is an environmental disaster, a catastrophe just waiting to happen. There's also train traffic, which is much more expensive and dirty as well that brings crude product to the shores of the Black Sea. And then there are truck and train traffic going through Iran down to the Persian Gulf.
BLOCK: Well, here's where geopolitics comes in, 'cause if you look at the route that they have designed for this pipeline, it is not the most direct route. They could have easily gone through Iran and gotten to Turkey quite a bit faster.
Mr. GOLTZ: Yes, or cross Armenia into Turkey. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a sort of miniature cold war for the last 12 years or so. So that meant that Georgia got dealt into the thing, and that has become the primary source of future revenue for the state of Georgia.
BLOCK: Put this into context for us, if you would. This pipeline will eventually be carrying a million barrels of oil a day, by 2009 they're saying. How significant is that?
Mr. GOLTZ: The figure is varied, but generally it's assumed that this is about 2 percent of world crude output. It is believed that this will just be the beginning of a larger stream of Caspian crude and Central Asian crude to come through this particular line.
BLOCK: One of the arguments in favor of the pipeline has been that it will increase or enhance regional stability. How would it do that?
Mr. GOLTZ: Well, that's the song that Washington wants to sing about this. I'm not sure if that's accurate or not. In history and across the world, find me a so-called peace pipeline. What it does do, however, is bring a certain amount of stability to every one of the countries along the route. In addition to the sort of trickle-down of jobs associated with either digging trenches or monitoring the pipeline, obviously there are things like the Oil Fund that has been set up in Azerbaijan to ensure that some of this revenue that accrues from Azeri crude will actually be seen by future generations.
BLOCK: Is it clear--I mean, there are a number of oil companies who will be profiting from this. But is it clear that those revenues will be distributed, at least some of them, to the local population?
Mr. GOLTZ: BP has got a pretty good record--they're the leading company in this pipeline consortium. They've got a pretty good record of local community input, building schools, hiring teachers, this sort of thing. But oil, as my old professor, Charles Issawi, always used to say, is a dirty business, and where it is flowing, you will find corruption.
BLOCK: Mr. Goltz, what about security for the pipeline?
Mr. GOLTZ: Well, the pipeline is underground for its entire length, so that the idea of somebody just casually coming up and sabotaging the thing is very, very remote. With the other pipelines in the region, the companies have hired on basically cowboys on horsebacks who ride up and down the lines to ensure that no bombs are being set at pumping stations and such. Like--and we can be pretty sure that with the level of investment--this is a $3.2 billion construction projection--that BP and the various other partners involved in the thing are going to try and keep it running as smoothly as possible.
BLOCK: You spent quite a while traveling by motorcycle along the route of this pipeline. What do you see as you go along? Do you see a landscape that's been completely transformed by what's coming through?
Mr. GOLTZ: Well, once you get the heavy equipment out of there, it's basically--there's a trench that you lay the pipe in, then you fill on top of that. But the promise is to leave a completely undisturbed environment behind. In terms of the terrain itself, it ranges from the deserts of Azerbaijan, mountains in south-central Georgia and mountains and vast vistas throughout Turkey. The highest point is about 8,000 feet, a place right on the Georgia-Turkish frontier, a glorious, beautiful mountain called Ilgaz Pass. And then you get down to the hot citrus-growing areas of the Turkish Mediterranean. So it's a wide variety of climates as well as geography, and it was an extraordinary engineering task.
BLOCK: Well, Thomas Goltz, thanks very much.
Mr. GOLTZ: You betcha. Thanks.
BLOCK: Thomas Goltz is author of "Azerbaijan Diary." He spoke with us from Livingston, Montana.
You can see photos of his trip along the route of the pipeline at our Web site, npr.org.
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