(AP)–Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially opened a $3.2 billion pipeline Thursday connecting Turkey to Russian gas fields and said Turkey could become an energy hub for Europe and Israel.
The Blue Stream pipeline–which has been running for more than two years but was just officially inaugurated–already pumps 3.2 billion cubic meters of gas a year–but has the potential to more than quadruple that volume.
Putin said that capacity could be further expanded.
"Another branch of the gas pipeline could be built across the Black Sea bed," Putin said. "Additional capacity could be built to supply gas to southern Italy–and in general–southern Europe–and Israel."
It has long been the dream of Turkey–which is now connected to Russia’s vast gas fields via the underwater pipeline–to act as an energy corridor to the West.
An oil pipeline already brings Iraqi crude to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for export and another pipeline will bring Caspian oil from Azerbaijan to the same port.
"We can extend Blue Stream to Ceyhan and build an important north-south energy corridor," Erdogan said. "We are determined to make Ceyhan a trade and energy center."
"I think we can build a … bypass oil pipeline that will carry Russian and Kazakh oil to the Mediterranean by the 2010’s," Erdogan added. "This would enable the transportation of oil that reached the Black Sea to the Mediterranean safely and economically."
Turkey has long complained that oil tankers transporting Russian crude must pass through the crowded Bosporus that divides Istanbul–posing a threat to the city.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also participated in the opening ceremony. Italy’s Eni SpA was a key partner in the construction of the natural gas pipeline.
Washington had balked at proposals to build the Blue Stream pipeline and has warned Turkey about its dependence on Russia–which now supplies 60 percent of the country’s gas and 20 percent of its oil.
But Turkish officials say that in a world of tight gas supplies–they have little choice but to increase their dependence on Russia–which produces almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia.
The Blue Stream pipeline is the world’s deepest undersea pipeline–stretching from southern Russia under the Black Sea to the Durusu Metering Station–a gas terminal outside of the port city of Samsun. An extension of the pipeline then carries the gas to the capital of Ankara.
The meeting shows "Samsun is not the end of the energy line–but the start of it," said Soner Cagaptay–an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The pipeline ceremony also highlights the burgeoning political relationship between Russia and NATO ally Turkey.
Erdogan and Putin have met five times since Erdogan’s party took control of parliament in 2002 and trade with Russia is expected to reach $15 billion this year.