Caspian region: one more element for cooperation

Official investigations have not completed and final figures have not been disclosed with regards to the harm associated with the April 20 accident in the Gulf of Mexico - the largest environmental disaster in the U.S. history. There are a variety of preliminary studies and calculations on this subject, for example, how many jobs were lost in the Gulf region after the entry into force of the six-month moratorium on drilling imposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in May, or what may be the economic damage to the economy of coastal states if to agree with the proposal of several congressmen after the incident to remove all of the independent operating companies (independents) from production. These figures and data are well known and have been published in the media outlets or in the form of special reports. But it is clear that general damages - both economic and ecological and human losses (within 85 days prior to the elimination of leakage, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the ocean, the coastal zone with a length of 350-450 km struk, killing 11, wounding 17 persons) - are very large, and its consequences, particularly environmental, has not yet appeared fully.

The disaster on the coast of the United States prompted the Europeans to revise legislation on exploration and production of oil from offshore drilling rigs and oil platforms. Given the fact that 90 percent of oil and 60% of gas in the European Economic Area is made on the offshore fields. In October this year the European Commission sent an official letter to the Parliament and Council of Europe, which proposes to consider the introduction of new standards related to mining oil and gas in the territorial waters of EU countries. If such a catastrophe occurs on the coast of Europe, it will to some extent affect all countries of the Union. The matter is that only in the north-eastern Atlantic, there are over thousands of offshore rigs for the development of hydrocarbons, in the Mediterranean Sea - more than one hundred. However, they are small in the Baltic and Black seas. It should also take into account the exploration and production in the immediate vicinity of the European maritime borders: the waters of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Libya, Tunisia, Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine.

In general, the level of security on offshore platforms in the EU is high, but there are differences and elements of inconsistency both in the legislation of individual countries, and in the requirements and safety procedures of various oil companies. To maximize control and reduce the risks there is a necessity for a more harmonious and coherent system of standards for offshore oil production. Recognizing this need, the European Commission put forward a number of new legislative proposals aimed at the highest (read hard) standards for safety, emergency preparedness and adequate response to them, which may become mandatory for all EU member states, and which today are followed by only several companies and member countries. The official letter to the European Commission stated that the proposal will find a form of the bill in early 2011.

The Communication covers standards on the prevention, the response and the financial liability:

-        Granting permits: When granting licences for new drillings, Member States will have to make sure that the oil companies meet key EU requirements: Companies must have a contingency plan and prove that they have the financial means available to them to pay for environmental damage caused in the event of an accident.

-         Controls: Oil platforms are controlled by national authorities. These supervision tasks of national authorities should be evaluated by independent experts.

-        Standards for safety equipment: Technical standards will ensure that only control equipment meeting the highest safety standards will be allowed. This includes in particular blow out preventers.

-        Damages/Response: Oil companies have to clean up and remedy the damage caused to the environment following an accident within a zone of maximal 200 nautical miles from the coast. The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), presently focussing on pollution caused by ships will also help on those caused by oil platforms.

-        International: The Commission will work for implementing existing international conventions and new common initiatives.

Europeans very responsibly approached this issue because they understand that a catastrophe similar to that in the U.S. can dramatically affect the energy security, the preservation of jobs, the environment, that is, the whole economy of the European Union. Realizing that any human activity is somehow related to the risk, they are nevertheless willing to incur costs in order to make the system as stable as possible.

Nobody, including in the Caspian Sea, are fully insured from incidents like that occurred on the coast of the United States, although the conditions in the Caspian Sea are easier, there is no depth there. Intensive development of new hydrocarbon fields in the Caspian region, increase in production, plans to build trans-Caspian pipelines to diversify the supply of Central Asian oil and gas to Europe, more than a dozen of rigs and fixed platforms, scattered over a vast area - these and other factors have long created the need for cooperation of the Caspian countries on the issue of overall preparedness for possible large-scale oil spills.

"Kazakhstan today is not ready for large-scale oil spills on the third level, similar to that which emerged in the Gulf of Mexico. That is the assessment of Kazakh experts, which I voiced when speaking at a recent meeting of the National Council. The prevention of disasters connected with oil production in the Caspian Sea was discussed there," he head of the KazMunaiGas labor and environmental protection department, Nurlan Sirazhev, has said.

The head of SOCAR's environmental department Azer Aliyev said all possible risks are evaluated during the preparation of energy projects in Azerbaijan, particularly taking into account all issues that may arise in the wells, as the geological character, and in the process of drilling and exploitation. All these issues are reflected in the decisions. In addition, he said the Ministry for Emergency Situations (MES), which is the national authority responsible for disaster relief and emergency spills and industrial accidents, has all the necessary facilities and equipment to liquidate consequences of the disaster.

Such a degree of readiness for such emergencies and the possibility of a rapid response in other coastal neighbors is not clear. However, given the specificity of the Caspian Sea, as well as common interests in the matter of production and diversification of hydrocarbon resources, the cooperation and verification of hours on this issue is vital for all Caspian states. It could take many forms, both in law and in practical terms. Initiatives of the European Commission may, in this case, serve as a good example.

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