Pipe Dreams  

Posted by Big Gav

Pipes seem to be much in the news this week. Pepe Escobar has a good article in the Asia Times ("Pipelineistan's biggest game begins") about the recently opened pipeline from the Caspian sea to Turkey. Amy Goodman at Democracy Now also has an interview with Michael Klare on this topic (via Energy Bulletin).

History may judge it as one of the capital moves of the 21st century's New Great Game: May 25, the day high-quality Caspian light crude started flowing through the Caucasus toward the Mediterranean in Turkey. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) - conceived by the US as the ultimate Western escape route from dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf - is finally in business.

This is what Pipelineistan is all about: a supreme law unto itself - untouchable by national sovereignty, serious environmental concerns (expressed both in the Caucasus and in Europe), labor legislation, protests against the World Bank, not to mention mountains 2,700 meters high and 1,500 small rivers. The founding stone is at British Petroleum's (BP's) gleaming terminal at Sangachal, half an hour along the Caspian south of Baku. The state is 44 meters wide, snaking 1,767 kilometers across three countries, two of those (Azerbaijan and Georgia) extremely volatile, and the other (Turkey) faces potential trouble from dispossessed Kurds.

In Georgia the obstacles are more complex than in Azerbaijan. Thus the "Rose Revolution" of late 2003, getting rid of Edward Shevardnadze to the benefit of young, photogenic, American-educated and American-aligned Mikhail Saakashvili. The small matter of defending BTC from attacks of alleged al-Qaeda-related Chechens holed up in the Georgian mountains remains. But at least protection at the end of BTC in Ceyhan in Turkey is guaranteed: it's not a coincidence that the pipeline ends right next door to the massive American airbase at Incirlik.

In terms of no-holds-barred power politics and oil geopolitics, BTC is the real deal - a key component in the US's overall strategy of wrestling the Caucasus and Central Asia away from Russia - and bypassing Iranian oil and gas routes. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, for instance, has just announced that Kazakh crude will also flow through the BTC before 2010. He even proposed to add Aktau - the Kazakh Caspian oil Mecca - to a new acronym (ABTC?). It's interesting to remember that BP always denied that it needs Kazakh oil to fill its pipeline.

BTC makes little sense in economic terms. Oil experts know that the most cost-effective routes from the Caspian would be south through Iran or north through Russia. But BTC is a designer masterpiece of power politics - from the point of view of Washington and its corporate allies.

The Globe and Mail's series on energy this week also included an article on pipelines - in this case, the growing demand for deep sea pipelines, as companies are forced to develop more remote and difficult to reach areas.
Norway's Langeled pipeline is a massive engineering challenge with the potential for an even more massive payoff when it is successfully operating in two years time: It could supply more than 20 per cent of the United Kingdom's natural gas.

Almost three million tonnes of rock are being laid on the bottom of the North Sea between Norway and the U.K. to support and stabilize the route for construction, planned for a seabed at depths of more than 1,000 metres, where the terrain features ragged underwater peaks that can jut up 60 metres. At sea level, the weather can be brutal -- gales and giant waves are typical. Below, the water in some parts is so cold that antifreeze will be needed to keep the gas flowing.

It is in this environment that the 1,200-kilometre link is being built. It will be the world's longest undersea pipeline and perhaps the industry's greatest construction challenge to date. Contending with such extremes is quickly becoming the norm in the pipeline business, where there is a new urgency to connect remote supplies of oil and natural gas with hungry consumer markets. The fear of energy shortages has heightened the sense of urgency, but these megaprojects require years to plan and build -- and those timelines are just getting longer as the challenges grow.

Over at Rigzone, they have an article on the damage done to oil platforms and pipelines by last year's Hurricanes. If global warming results in larger, more intense tropical storms, you have to wonder how much more of a problem this will be in future, especially with increasing offshore oil production.
Hurricane Ivan has shown that oil drillers need to do a better job of securing their platforms to prevent damage to pipelines on the sea floor and pipeline operators need to be better prepared to make repairs,

The hurricane shut down significant volumes of U.S. oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico last fall, sending prices sharply higher. Platforms were damaged by the wind and waves, but the most lasting damage was done to pipelines, preventing even healthy platforms from getting product to shore. Some of the damage was caused by five mobile drilling rigs pushed by the storm's winds miles away from where they were stationed, with their anchors wreaking havoc in the pipeline-laden sea-bottom.

Finally, another use for pipes is as a means of harnessing the power of ocean thermal energy conversion (via Peak Energy North).
Craven's system exploits the dramatic temperature difference between ocean water below 3,000 feet - perpetually just above freezing - and the much warmer water and air above it. That temperature gap can be harnessed to create a nearly unlimited supply of energy. Although the scientific concepts behind cold-water energy have been around for decades, Craven made them real when he founded the state-funded Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii in 1974 on Keahole Point, near Kona. Under Craven, the lab developed the process of using cold deep-ocean water and hot surface water to produce electricity. By the 1980s the Natural Energy Lab's demonstration plant was generating net power, the world's first through so-called ocean thermal energy conversion.

"The potential of OTEC is great," says Joseph Huang, a senior scientist for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and an expert on the process. "The oceans are the biggest solar collector on Earth, and there's enough energy in them to supply a thousand times the world's needs. If you want to depend on nature, the oceans are the only energy source big enough to tap."

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