Oil is big business in Kazakhstan, especially along the shores of the Caspian Sea. We taveled to Atyrau, the hub of the oil industry in West Kazakhstan, to find out more.
In Atyrau, international companies and their representatives flock together to develop the offshore Kashagan oil field, which is the biggest oil field discovered during the past 30 years. Soon after checking-in at our hotel, we found ourselves surrounded by Italian business men. This is no coincidence, since the Italian company Eni-Agip is one of the operations managers for the Kashagan oil project. Moreover, Eni holds 16.81% of the shares of the Kashagan project. During dinner we watch the Italians as they order a meal with flagrant nonchalance while chitchatting with the young waitresses.
UK prime minister David Cameron meets president of Kazakhstan
The Kashagan oil field is located some 80 km offshore from Atyrau in the nothern (and Kazakh) part of the Caspian Sea. It has a surface area of approximately 75 by 45 km and it is said to contain 35 billion barrels of oil. It is no coincidence that the British prime minister David Cameron visited Atyrau end of June. Together with president Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazachstan, he celebrated the official commissioning of the Kashagan oil field production facilities. But Kashagan is not the only oil field around. South of Atyrau, the Tengiz oil field has been operating since 20 years, not always as succesfull for the environment… It is feared that the operation of the Kashagan oil field could harm the environment to a much bigger extend.
What are the possible negative environmental effects of the exploitation of the oil field? In Atyrau we talked to Galina Chernova, leading lady of the local ngo Globus Centre that fights to protect the environment and the local people. She stresses that the operation of the Kashagan oil field is technically considerably more complicated than that of the onshore located Tengiz oil field. The Caspian Sea experiences high temperature fluctuations (between -40°C and +40°C), the sea water freezes in winter during several months and the sea level fluctuates over time. Because of this, the oil will be pumped up from artificial islands. However, there are additional technical problems… The oil is embedded in layers containing up to 20% H2S and this under high pressure. After separation from the oil, 80% of the sulfur gas needs to be reinjected in the seabed. This poses significant technical challenges that – when they fail – could seriously threaten the environment. Potential oil spills pose another threat for the biodiversity of the Caspian Sea. The already endangered Caspian sturgeon, famous for its caviar, and the Caspian seal, are only some of the animals that could experience considerable harm from the exploitation of the Kashagan oil field. More about this later on our website.