TBILISI (Associated Press)–Oil company executives smeared black oil on their faces Friday to celebrate the opening of a new pipeline bringing crude from Azerbaijan’s rich Caspian Sea fields across Georgia and on to world markets.
The new pipeline is relatively small but is another key marker in the development of the Caspian fields–which hold reserves thought second only to the Persian Gulf but have lacked an adequate pipeline system for exporting.
The line begins in Azerbaijan’s capital–Baku–on the Caspian Sea and heads west across the country to neighboring Georgia–culminating at Georgia’s Black Sea port of Supsa.
The first oil in the pipeline crossed Azerbaijan’s border into eastern Georgia on Friday–and will reach the Black Sea coast by late March or early April. From there–tankers will haul it to world markets.
"It is a historic day," Giye Chanturiya–president of the Georgian International Oil Company–said in a ceremony near the Azerbaijan-Georgia border. "The people who did not believe in this project can see it with their own eyes."
Chanturiya dabbed his fingers in a glass of oil and smeared it on his face and the faces of others at the ceremony–including journalists.
The new pipeline is expected to handle the relatively modest amount of 2.5 million tons of oil in 1999.
It is the second pipeline running from the Caspian fields to the Black Sea coast. The other terminates farther north at the Russian port of Novorossiisk.
A much larger pipeline is planned–but the United States–Russia and Iran are vying over its route in what has become a major battle for influence over the Caspian reserves.
Washington and its NATO ally Turkey want the line to run through Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
The United States is adamantly against having the line take the shorter–far cheaper route through its perennial rival–Iran–or north through Russia.
American diplomats want multiple pipelines out of the Caspian so no one nation will have a stranglehold over the flow of oil.
As all the countries involved jockey for position over the lucrative pipeline routes–the construction of the lines has been delayed. Oil companies–faced with low oil prices on a glutted market–have also shied away from the major investment of building pipelines.
Azerbaijan and Kazakstan have the largest Caspian oil reserves–while Turkmen’stan can claim a smaller amount. The two other Caspian nations–Russia and Iran–have little or no Caspian oil off their coastlines but hope to profit from the pipelines that cross their territory.
Georgia has no significant oil reserves of its own–but will receive money for allowing the crude to travel across its land.