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KAZAKHSTAN - Caspian Flooding Affects Oilfields

While the Aral Sea has been drying up rapidly, the Caspian Sea has risen by about three metres since 1978. In some places the sea has advanced inland by

more than 70 km. Resultant flooding has caused serious problems to oil operators. At Tengiz, more than 100 wells have been flooded; about 1,200 wells and refinery installations on the north-east coastline are at risk. This and other coastal regions in the Caspian are among the most polluted areas in the former Soviet Union.

This trend might be cyclical, however. In the past, the Caspian Sea was falling, much like the Aral Sea to the east. Old photographs of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, show the shoreline much closer to the centre of the city. But the sea is definitely rising relatively fast. Russian archaeologists claim to have found the ruins from the 1,000-year-old Khazar empire at the bottom of the sea. Geologists believe the seabed might be rising, judging by the mud volcanoes found in the bed's seismically active areas, giving way to springs of water.

One can see oily film on the sea's surface caused by drilling. Another problem is the flaring of natural gas in the sea - about 4.5 MCM/day. Gas flares, however, can be contained with Western technology. While the sea is less polluted than the Black Sea, much needs to be done to lessen the harmful environmental effects of oil drilling, and the potentially disastrous effects of the rising waters.

Oil exploration in the Caspian and along the coast predates the travels of Marco Polo. Legend has it that the "eternal flame" of the Zoroastrian religion was fuelled by natural gas around Baku, before the 8th century. Serious exploration and exploitation began in earnest in the 1850s. By the 1890s, this instigated rapid development in the Baku region. By the outset of World War I, Azerbaijan had 10% of the world's exports of oil and kerosene, down from 30% in the 1890s. It was only in the 1980s that modern technology enabled geologists to perceive the deeper fields, with most of the oil reserves, which became accessible.

Oil derricks dotted the Caspian landscape during the 1870s. From the 1920s oil became a major source of hard currency for the Soviet Union. But, when it came to large-scale oil exploration, drilling methods were technologically inferior to those used in the West. This inhibited Soviet exploration in the Caspian. (Western firms for decades had longed to exploit the Caspian's massive oil reserves, but the Cold War relationship did not allow this).
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Publication:APS Review Oil Market Trends
Article Type:Article
Geographic Code:9KAZA
Date:Jul 27, 1998
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