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Tatyana Butylina: all risks need to be considered before building trans-Caspian pipeline

18:00 | 10.02.2012 | Analytic

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10 February 2012. PenzaNews. The construction of marine pipelines will lead to the deterioration of the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea, hydrocarbon pollution and the destruction of the habitat of marine species as well as a decline in biological productivity. This is the opinion expressed by Tatyana Butylina, Deputy Director of Autonomous Nonprofit Organization “Center for International Projects” (ANO CIP), head of the section for the implementation of the Caspian Environmental Program, in her article entitled “On the problem of environmental safety of trans-Caspian pipelines”. PenzaNews presents the unabridged version of the article below.

Tatyana Butylina: all risks need to be considered before building trans-Caspian pipeline

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At present marine pipelines are justifiably considered the most effective and environmentally safe method of transportation of natural gas across the sea. This is confirmed by the experience in designing, constructing and using pipelines in the Baidarats Bay, the Baltic Sea (Nord Stream pipeline) and the Black Sea (Blue Stream and South Stream pipelines). At the same time, objective information for the purpose of environmental risk assessment can be obtained only after carefully and fully considering local conditions in a specific area of the sea underneath which a pipeline is to be built as well as technologies for construction and maintenance, including recultivation of seafloor and coastal landscapes disturbed in the process of construction and use of the pipeline once the pipeline stops operating.

Though the construction and use of the marine pipelines underneath the Black Sea, which is in many ways similar to the Caspian Sea, has not affected the marine environment, this should not lead one to reach a similar conclusion regarding the Caspian Sea without first adducing sufficient evidence based not only on expert assessments but also on special engineering and environmental research in specific areas of the South Caspian (or the Absheron threshold, depending on the route to be chosen for the proposed pipeline) involving specialists from all countries of the region.

When assessing environmental risks of the construction and use of a trans-Caspian pipeline the following factors should necessarily be considered first:

- Environmental risks arise in the process of construction, use and maintenance of marine pipelines as well as in the course of recultivation of landscapes after the pipeline ceases to be used. During the period of active use these are mainly connected with the toxicity of products transported through the pipeline. It is a well-known fact that absolute levels of hydrocarbons spilled during emergency breaks in marine pipelines are usually measured to be low. However this source of pollution is one of the most dangerous for a number of reasons. Emergencies involving the spilling of hydrocarbons cause significant damage to marine ecosystems because concentrations of pollutants reach maximum levels at such times. Toxic effects come both from methane which composes 97% of natural gas and from its homologues (ethane, propane, and butane) which attack the central nervous system of fishes at a concentration of 1 mg/l. During emergency spills such effects can be observed at a distance of 500 meters from the source.

- Due to the high seismic activity in this region, the land-locked nature of the sea and an integrated system of currents of the Caspian, damage will be caused to all the littoral states without exception and to the entire marine environment regardless of the positioning of the pipeline if an emergency occurs. Potentially hazardous natural phenomena that could trigger pipeline emergencies in the region include mud volcanism, earthquakes and tsunami (or the so-called tidal waves) which are highly probable in the Caspian Sea as well as long-term changes of the Caspian Sea level.

- Natural phenomena contributing to environmental risks of the construction and use of pipelines underneath the Caspian include underwater landslides on the slopes of the Middle Caspian and the existence of fractures in the sea bed where seismic and technogenous activity may lead to the “unloading” of hydrocarbon reserves into the Caspian environment. Little-researched hazards which may cause heavy environmental damage during the construction and use of marine pipelines also comprise the fluidodynamic regime of deep underwater layers, gravitational phenomena such as landslides, heterogeneous tensions in stratified sediments as well as the movement of bottom waters and sediments leading to the formation of underwater canyons up to 50 meters in depth.

- The construction or maintenance of pipelines results in the disturbance of sediments which produces turbidity and reintroduces settled contaminants into the Caspian ecosystem thus threatening the survival of hydrobiont species, and also leads to fragmentation of the habitat of seafloor organisms. This also creates temporary barriers to migration routes of various seafloor organisms.

- The construction and use of pipelines involve local noise and thermal pollution of the marine environment whose impact on the endemic Caspian species is insufficiently researched.

- The development of transport infrastructure based on marine pipelines gives additional impetus for greater exploitation of offshore and onshore hydrocarbon deposits, which is likely to lead to emergencies associated with marine hydrocarbon extraction and an increase in the amount of drilling waste and insufficiently treated drainage waters.

- The construction of marine pipelines will lead to the deterioration of the Caspian ecosystem, hydrocarbon pollution and the destruction of the habitat of marine biological resources, and consequently to a decline in biological productivity, including diminishing fish stocks and valuable benthophage species of sturgeon, in particular. Potential losses to the fisheries resulting from the construction and use of marine pipelines (as well as marine oil and gas exploration and the construction, operation and disposal of marine platforms) involve obstacles to fishing, deterioration of the habitat of marine biological resources and death of seafloor organisms; declining quality of nutrition and obstructed migrations of fish stocks with worse conditions for reproduction as well as direct reduction in the size of fishing zones.

It is necessary to note that for full appreciation of Caspian-specific factors of ensuring environmental safety the primary design and planning of the construction of marine pipelines should include not only information and analysis but also concrete “field” (marine) research. These various activities conducted as part of fundamental and applied marine geophysical, geological, geomorphologic (including lithodynamic) ecological and fisheries research of the Caspian by national and transnational scientific companies in the region require a common articulation, analysis and interpretation focusing on a specific problem, which is complicated by the commercial, strategic and political character of a number of such materials.

Since Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan declared issues of environmental safety to be priorities in designing the trans-Caspian pipeline, it appears reasonable to suggest using the five-party format of the relevant research and assessment activities (subject to the requirement that the abovementioned and other possible Caspian-specific aspects are identified) in order to ensure that all aspects of environmental safety are considered within the environmental impact assessment procedure.

The proposed approach may appear to be a way to delay the design and implementation of the project but in the context of the Caspian region only this approach conforms to the statement made by the presidents of the Caspian states during the 2010 Baku Summit to the effect that “the Caspian Sea is a sea of peace, stability, friendship and good neighborly relations,” also enunciated in the preamble to the Agreement on Security Cooperation in the Caspian Sea, and follows the fundamental principle for ensuring regional environmental safety “Measure thrice and cut once.”

A vivid example of such research efforts is the experience of Russian cooperation with EU countries in conducting similar research within the Nord Stream project.

As regards the political aspects of the issue in question it is important to bear in mind that Azerbaijan which contributes to the preparation of the trans-Caspian gas pipeline project along with Turkmenistan (despite serious differences in their approaches to the delineation of the Caspian sea bed for the purpose of exploitation of mineral resources) is a party to the Espoo Convention and as such is required to cooperate with other countries to be affected by the proposed activities as regards the environmental impact assessment of the project.

At present the only functioning mechanism for consideration of issues of environmental safety at the regional level, inter alia, as regards the implementation of technological projects (one of which is the proposed trans-Caspian pipeline project) is the Tehran Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea. As the next Conference of the Parties is scheduled to convene in late 2012 in Moscow, there is still time left for parties to the Convention to agree to include this issue in the agenda of the Conference.

P.S. In relation to the Agreement on Security Cooperation in the Caspian Sea signed by the presidents of the Caspian states at the 2010 Baku Summit and ratified by the Russian Federation in December 2011 (Federal Law No. 367-FZ signed by the President of the Russian Federation on 3 December 2011) which can also be considered as a possible channel for cooperation to ensure environmental safety of proposed trans-Caspian gas pipelines it can be contended that only Russia and Turkmenistan failed to designate their nature protection and fisheries ministries (agencies) as those responsible for the implementation of this Agreement.

It can therefore be assumed that neither the Russian Nature Ministry nor the Russian Fisheries Agency bears any responsibility for the area of cooperation indicated in Article 2, para. 1, of this Agreement [“Fight against illegal taking of biological resources (poaching)” or for the obligation of the parties to “cooperate in other areas pertaining to the subject of the present Agreement and presenting mutual interest, except for the military aspects of security” (para. 2 of the said Article), and, for example, for environmental security]. Nevertheless, mechanisms of cooperation stipulated in the Agreement and its main principle (Article 1) which states that “Ensuring security in the Caspian Sea is the prerogative of the Caspian states” can become an additional means to develop cooperation in this area of concern after the Agreement enters into force.

The Caspian Sea is the largest land-locked body of water on Earth with a unique ecological system inhabited by over 400 endemic species, among which the Caspian sturgeon and the very rare fresh water seal are the most famous.

The coastlines of the Caspian are shared by the five Caspian littoral states, namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan. The significance of the Caspian region is primarily based on its rich mineral resources. According to the estimates of the U.S. Department of Energy the total resources of the Caspian region constitute 100-200 billion barrels of oil (which exceeds North American oil resources as a whole) and 7.9 trillion cubic meters of gas.

The OECD report states that the proven oil resources of the Caspian account for about 3% of the world reserves.

Kazakhstan has the largest proven oil reserves and is the leader in oil production. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are second and third respectively. Iran is not yet active in hydrocarbon exploitation in the Caspian.

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