CEYHAN–Turkey (AFP) – The leaders of Azerbaijan–Georgia and Turkey have formally inaugurated the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline–a major US-backed project conceived 12 years ago to supply oil to Western markets that bypasses Russia and Iran.
The four-billion-dollar (3.145-billion-euro) conduit will bring oil from the Caspian Sea fields–the world’s third largest reserve–to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan–from where tankers will transport the crude to energy-hungry Western markets.
The pipeline is seen as a project of geostrategic significance–loosening Russia’s long-standing grip over oil exports from former Soviet republics–bypassing US foe Iran and easing Western reliance on Middle East crude supplies.
In a message read out at the ceremony here–US President George W. Bush hailed the project as an "impressive achievement… (that) marks a new era," and crucial for "providing energy security and enhancing regional cooperation."
One of the longest in the world–the pipeline stretches over 1,109 miles from Azerbaijan to Ceyhan via Georgia–going underground at times and crossing rivers and mountains more than 9,240 feet high at others.
In almost identical words–speakers at the ceremony celebrated the inauguration as "a dream come true" – a reference to widespread skepticism in the initial phases of planning that the pipeline was commercially unviable and difficult to build.
Washington has staunchly backed the route–lobbying hard for the exclusion of Iran–also an oil producer–whose participation would have made the conduit both shorter and more profitable.
"We always felt the support of the United States and we are very grateful for their efforts," Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the pipeline "the Silk Road of the 21st century," saying it would boost economic development–cooperation and stability in a region that was once the Cold War frontier between NATO and the Soviet Union.
Aliyev–Erdogan and presidents Ahmet Necdet Sezer of Turkey and Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia–joined by top executives of the share-holding companies–constructed a symbolic mini-pipeline–marking the formal opening of the conduit.
To applause from the audience–each laid a segment of pipe bearing the flag of their respective countries or the emblem of their companies.
A curtain was then raised behind the stage–revealing the Ceyhan terminal–where a British tanker loaded with 600,000 barrels of Azeri Light was moored–ready to sail for the Italian port of Genoa later in the day.
The Turkish authorities laid on heavy security for the ceremony–with 5,000 police and troops deployed at the venue and its environs–including snipers positioned on rooftops.
Senior officials from about 30 other countries and international organizations–including the United States and the European Union–attended the gathering.
The BTC’s longest stretch –671 miles– runs through Turkey with the remaining 275 miles in Azerbaijan and 163 miles in Georgia.
It was built by an international consortium led by British oil giant BP–which holds the largest stake of 30.1 percent. The 10 other shareholders are public and private oil companies from Azerbaijan–France–Italy–Japan–Norway–Turkey and the United States.
The pipeline is designed to carry up to 50 million metric tons of crude a year but is not likely to operate at full capacity in the short term–experts say.
Last month–Kazakhstan signed an agreement to join the project–committing an initial 7.5 million metric tons annually–with a pledge to raise the amount to 20 million metric tons in the longer term.
The inauguration of the pipeline is a major boost to Ankara’s claim of becoming a regional energy hub between Western consumers and the natural gas and oil producers of the Caspian and the Middle East.
Ceyhan–on Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coast–is already the end-point of another pipeline from the oil fields of neighboring northern Iraq. Turkey also plans to make it the terminal of yet another oil conduit from Turkey’s Black Sea port of Samsun.
Work is also under way on several other pipeline projects to carry Caspian and Iranian natural gas to Europe via Turkey.
The BTC route also avoids the Bosphorus Strait–where congestion and tanker accidents often endanger the environment and the safety of residential quarters on the banks of the narrow waterway–which passes through Istanbul–a city of 12 million.