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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 09:31 GMT
Huge oil find 'threatens Caspian'
Camel with refinery in distance   A Kirby
Camels roam at will around Atyrau's refinery

Western oil companies are poised to start developing a field near here which experts believe is the world's largest.

But Kazakh scientists say pumping out the oil, at Kashagan, threatens the northern Caspian with catastrophe.

The oil beneath Kashagan is a genie in a bottle

Prof Muftach Diarov
They say earthquakes in this seismically active region could wreak havoc as the submarine reservoirs are drained.

And they want the developers to agree to scale back production significantly.

The Kashagan field, about 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Atyrau, is believed to contain about 40 billion barrels of oil, 10 billion of them recoverable.

'Wild East'

One barrel contains 45 gallons, enough to fill the tanks of three family saloon cars.

Experts say a one-billion-barrel field is considered huge, and Kashagan is being compared with some of the largest Saudi Arabian fields.

World War II oil tank   A Kirby
World War Two oil tanks still dot the Caspian shore
The Western companies involved in the consortium preparing to exploit Kashagan include Agip of Italy, British Gas, the US giant ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalFinaElf.

The region around Atyrau, a city of 200,000 people which sits almost 30 metres below sea level, is known as central Asia's Wild East.

The Caspian is a formidable challenge for the oil companies. The southern part of the sea is up to 1,000 m deep, and the central belt lies about 4-500 m down.

But the northern basin averages little more than 10 m in depth, although high winds can temporarily alter the sea level over wide areas.

Sturgeon concern

Agip has commissioned special shallow-draught icebreakers, capable of operating in 2 m of water, for winter use.

The companies cannot use traditional drilling rigs, and have to build artificial islands to extract the oil.

Oil rig at sea   PA
Conventional rigs are no use in the Caspian
Many Kazakhs oppose the exploitation of Kashagan, fearing it will worsen health problems in the area by increasing air pollution.

They say its position, in the mouth of the Ural river which divides Europe from Asia, will push the prized wild Caspian sturgeon closer to extinction.

Some fear a more cataclysmic threat from Kashagan. Professor Muftach Diarov, a geologist who heads Atyrau's Oil and Gas Institute, is a member of Kazakhstan's national academy of sciences.

'No risk'

The oil in Kashagan and elsewhere in the north Caspian, he says, "is pressurised to1,000 atmospheres and is at 100 to 120 C.

"The problem is that we do not have enough experience to work under such extreme conditions."

Beyond that, Professor Diarov fears that emptying the oil and gas from their reservoirs beneath the Caspian's bed could trigger devastating earthquakes.

He says tremors elsewhere in the Caspian have already been felt near Atyrau, and could also destabilise the Kashagan reservoirs.

Concern for Caspian sturgeon
(Image by Bill Reese)

Professor Diarov told BBC News Online: "The oil beneath Kashagan is a genie in a bottle - it's a bomb. Sooner or later it will explode, and everything in the north Caspian will be damaged.

"We know what to expect from a fire in the Tenghiz field south of here, operated by a consortium which includes ChevronTexaco.

"That burnt for more than a year, and caused damage over a 300 km radius. I've told Agip and Chevron of my fears. But oil dollars always win."

Professor Diarov said Russia, which has a similar field close to the Kazakh frontier, had decided "wisely" to reduce production to 25% of the attainable level, because "they understand they have to go slowly. And Kazakhstan should do the same."

A spokesman for TengizChevroil, exploiting the Tenghiz field, told BBC News Online: "Our geologists say there is no risk right now that distant tremors could set off disturbances here."

See also:

02 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
04 Oct 02 | Business
18 Sep 02 | Europe
24 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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