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Pipeline Faces Delays, Complaints in Turkey

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through three countries between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.
Doug Beach for NPR /
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through three countries between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.

Turkey hosts the longest stretch of a new transnational pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Construction is nearly a year behind schedule and financial disagreements over the project may cause further delays.

Turkish villagers complain that the pipeline has caused damage to their land, and some fishermen along the Mediterranean coast fear tanker traffic will hurt their business.

The pipeline extends for more than 500 miles through Turkey, over snow-capped mountains and past tiny villages.

In the village of Sogutveren, Olcay Alsan, 26, takes care of his family's seven cows. He wears the boots and bright orange jumpsuit he got while working for one month on the construction of the pipeline.

Over a cup of warm, fresh milk, which the family sells, Alsan says he liked the pipeline job and hopes to get permanent work at a pump station up the road.

For the next several hundred miles, the same orange uniform appears on the backs of other farmers and shepherds, who also worked part-time on the pipeline. But not everyone is happy with the project.

In the village of Yurtbasi, farmer Ahmet Yutuk points out the damage he says the pipeline did to his fields.

"What annoys us is there is a kind of invasion on our fields and they are carrying the oil to other countries, selling it to them and giving us nothing," Yutuk says.

Industry analysts, however, are excited about the project. Harvard University's Brenda Schaeffer says that if and when this pipeline begins pumping oil, it may ease world gasoline prices.

"Think about adding the soothing effect of a million barrels a day to the world's market," she says. "Yes, I think this will have a soothing effect and also (reduce) dependency on OPEC."

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline is one of the largest international investment projects in recent history in the small former soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Not so for Turkey, which dwarfs its smaller pipeline partners both geographically and economically.

Turkey is already crisscrossed by several pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from nearby Iraq, Iran and Russia.

"If you look at Turkey, it's surrounded by energy producers," notes John Roberts, an energy-security specialist. He says these pipelines have turned Turkey into an energy hub, channeling fuel from often-turbulent countries to the West.

But Turkey has its own share of instability, namely, the 20-year conflict with the Kurdish separatist movement called the PKK, which has intensified in recent months.

The BTC pipeline takes a long turn around the Kurdish-populated provinces of southeastern Turkey. British Petroleum executive Norman Rodda says that's been done to reduce the risk of sabotage.

"There's possible terrorism. That's a concern. And also villains who want to steal oil," he says.

The pipeline has faced construction delays, and there may be other complications.

Gokmen Cologlu, of Turkey's state oil company, says his organization is claiming more then $400 million in additional construction fees from international partners in the BTC pipeline consortium.

Cologlu says the pipeline project was the brainchild of the U.S. government -- part of a plan to break the Russian chokehold over Caspian Sea energy deposits.

Matt Bryza is a top U.S. State Department official overseeing energy policy in the Caucasus.

"Until BTC, until the earlier Baku-Supsa pipeline, there was no way to get Caspian oil to global markets other then through Russian-controlled pipelines," Bryza says. "We're not anti-Russia, but it's just a way to cut back on monopoly pressures and increase competition."

One of the unexpected casualties of the new pipeline may be the small fishing port of Yumurtalik, located just a few miles down the coast from the Ceyhan terminal where the pipeline ends.

Local fishermen say the expected tanker traffic will block their access to already-dwindling fish stocks in the Mediterranean Sea. Resident Halit Cetinkiran says the village is suing the oil company.

"This is not good for this area," Cetinkiran says. "We want more tourists, not oil (tankers), you know."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.