Georgia: Further Protests In The Pipeline

The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil project may have been given the green light, but local environmentalists are still seeing red.

Georgia: Further Protests In The Pipeline

The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil project may have been given the green light, but local environmentalists are still seeing red.

Eleventh hour objections by environmentalists were swept aside last week when the international consortium behind a major oil pipeline - from Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Turkey - secured the right to start work early in 2003.

After a commission of experts ended a marathon 35-hour debate about the route of the three billion US dollar Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the country's environment minister Nino Chkhobadze told journalists on December 2 that her government had given project leader BP the green light.

It was the latest dramatic chapter for a project which has been through many ups and downs since it was first mooted in 1995, and which the Georgian government hopes will solve many of its economic and energy problems.

But now the government itself stands accused of having given in too easily to pressure from oil companies, and of not allowing enough time for environmental experts to express their concerns over the pipeline's route through the Georgian countryside.

BP's Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the project had been extensively discussed by the government, investors and environmental experts - many of whom were deeply unhappy about the proposed route through the Borzhomi valley, which is famous for the forests and springs that produce Georgia's best-known brand of mineral water.

The minister confirmed that while the authorities had agreed to all of BP's major requests, they had presented the company with 16 pages of demands for additional environmental protection and, if any of these were not fulfilled, Georgia would have the right to withdraw from its agreement.

"The demands should be much tougher," Chkhobadze admitted. "But we gave in to pressure from the investors, who were threatening to pull out of the project altogether."

For their part, the environmentalists have vowed to carry on fighting the proposed pipeline route. "We are capable of creating very big problems for the investors in negotiations with international financial institutions," warned Manana Kochladze, head of the non-governmental organisation Green Alternative.

However, BP spokesperson Rusudan Medzmariashvili told IWPR that while the company "did not make any concessions", it had put an extremely high level of environmental protection in place.

The company's assessment document was published on October 16, leaving only seven weeks for debate before it had to be approved on November 30 - a major reason why the row blew up so publicly. It contained a detailed route plan for the pipeline - the first time such a diagram had been made available.

On reading it, unhappy environmental experts - both local and international - demanded that the pipeline should be diverted away from the Borzhomi valley.

"According to data given by BP itself, if there is an accident in the pipeline, oil will run down the hillsides and reach the centre of Borzhomi in four hours," said Mamuka Khazaradze, president of Georgian Glass and Mineral Waters, which uses Borzhomi water.

"Even a small spill would be enough to do irreparable damage both to the gorge itself and to the mineral water sources."

But BP has assured environmentalists that the pipeline's route is some 15 km from the Borzhomi springs, will be built of thick protective steel and equipped with sensors warning of any imminent problems.

This did not satisfy the international group of more than 60 experts convened by the Georgian government, which sent BP a long list of questions on November 14.

The most serious of the doubts - a suggestion that the route should be altered - would have delayed the timeframe of the project and caused serious loss of revenue for the international investors and the governments involved. If work begins on schedule, the first oil should start flowing through the pipeline in the spring of 2005.

These last minute objections caused Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev to comment, "I will discuss this issue with [Georgian president Eduard] Shevardnadze, because Tbilisi is acting in a completely incomprehensible way and we have to solve all the issues on Baku-Ceyhan by the end of November."

The US special adviser on Caspian issues, Steve Mann, came to Tbilisi on November 25, followed shortly afterwards by BP's David Woodward, head of the consortium running the project.

The Georgian authorities began to feel the pressure. Only two months previously, Shevardnadze haad described the nation's participation in the project as its "greatest achievement in its entire period of independence".

The completed pipeline will transmit one million barrels of oil a day or 50 million tonnes a year. Georgia will receive substantial transit fees of 10 million US dollars in the first year, swelling as the flow of oil increases -- as well as the substantial political benefits of being part of a large western project. But to many local analysts, it appears as if the government may have sacrificed environmental concerns in search of profit.

"We should have expected nothing else," said Kochladze. "The authorities predetermined this in May 2000 when they signed an agreement with BP in which they allowed just 30 days for the discussion of an environmental review."

One of the analysts on the commission, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that "the attitude of the investors to the Georgian side has changed markedly" since 1999, when the Baku-Supsa pipeline was approved.

"Back then, the representatives of the investor companies discussed all controversial issues with Georgian specialists and sought possible solutions together," the specialist said. "Now the sponsor group just put pressure on us with the aim of getting the quickest possible permission for the terms that suited them."

BP's Medzmariashvili categorically denies this, telling IWPR that the environmental and social impact assessment "is of the highest international standards and one of the best in the world for similar projects". BP would continue to work with the Georgian government "to the benefit of all parties involved," she added.

Gennady Abarovich is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi

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