The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello.
These are straitened times for BP. The oil giant faces a slew of civil and criminal suits arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In October, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev chastised the company for its failure to meet production targets in the Caspian Sea. BP’s ‘grave mistakes’ have cost the oil-dependent Caucasus state $8.1bn in lost revenue over the past three years, the Azeri president claimed.
Azerbaijan is in the midst of an oil boom, as anyone who watched the coverage of year’s Eurovision song contest from the Azeri capital Baku will attest. The once-rusting Soviet city is now dominated by shimmering skyscrapers, funded by profits from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli, a huge field 120km off the coast of Azerbaijan controlled mainly by BP. Oil from ACG constitutes around 1 per cent of total global production.
Part-travelogue, part-reportage, the Oil Road is a powerful – if slightly repetitive – account of how a valuable natural resource can turn a tiny elite into plutocrats, destabilise nations and ruin the lives of ordinary people. Told through a series of vignettes and diary pieces, the book traces the journey of Azeri oil, from its extraction in the Caspian Sea all the way to the City of London, where BP’s financial power is consolidated.
Channelling the spirit of Wilfred Thesiger and Paddy Fermor, the authors follow the route of the 1,100-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, known as BTC, which connects the fecund Caspian fields with container ships on the edge of Europe. ‘What is shipped from the BTC terminal is a raw commodity in bulk, extracted from weaker nations and transported to the most powerful.’ It’s a journey that takes them overland from Azerbaijan to Turkey before finally arriving in Bavaria, where ACG’s black gold powers the industrial furnaces of Central Europe.
Marriott and Minio-Paluello show time and again how the oil industry has captured putatively sovereign states. Legislation is passed at the behest of BP executives, at times with the direct assistance of Western politicos.
In Turkey, one of the authors is detained near the pipeline. A secretary for energy and environment at the British embassy in Ankara calls, not to assist but to warn the writers against visiting villages affected by the pipeline without permission. No such prohibition exists in Turkish law. ‘[A]s in Azerbaijan and Georgia, the arbitrary power of the state is being utilised to prevent BP’s pipeline being scrutinised.’
For the next four decades villagers living near the BTC are forbidden from building anything within 40 metres of the pipeline. Although two Turkish children die while playing on a construction site adjacent to the pipeline, ‘(q)uestions about compensation are met with a snort of derision.’ In Georgia, locals whose homes were built near the route complain that BP, ‘send the police force instead of coming to meet us themselves.’
Western interest in the Caucasus has long been mediated by oil. From the 1870s to the 1900s, Azeri crude was the bedrock of a flourishing kerosene industry. By the turn of the 20th century, the Oil Road’s exports fuelled factories across Europe and Asia. So dependent were the British that after World War I they sent troops to support the short-lived anti-Soviet Centro-Caspian Dictatorship. ‘We are not here to put down Bolshevism, but to guard British capital sunk in the old fields,’ a Corporal in the expedition wrote to his mother in July 1919.
The Oil Road was a busy nexus at the crossroads of much 20th century history. We meet Stalin, or Koba as he was originally known in Georgia; the Futurists in the fascist city-state of Fiume; the Nazis; and the Red Army Faction.
This is no dry historiography, however. References to Lermontov and Marco Polo, Kemal and Ruskin pepper a highly readable text (Although some slipshod editing has left a lot of unnecessary and distracting repetition).
Unlike the Silk Road, which the title consciously echoes, the contemporary Oil Road is haunted by the spectre of climate change. Despite BP’s rebranding as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, less than one per cent of its turnover comes from renewable energy. Indeed, the company supports groups in the US that actively deny global warming.
Earlier this month, Ireland-based oil and gas company Providence Resources announced that a field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280million barrels of oil. Irish politicians, and citizens, would do well to heed the OilRoad’s cautionary lesson: without proper social and environmental oversight, oil can be a boon for a powerful few and a disaster for everyone else.