Hydrocarbons

One of the largest single sources of pollution in the Caspian Sea is derived from hydrocarbons extraction. Prospecting and extraction of offshore oil and gas, construction of sea platforms and jetties, construction and operation of underwater pipelines, shipping and transporting of hydrocarbons: all these processes can involve involuntary or inevitable water contamination.

Since considerable hydrocarbon resources have been found in the Caspian, the region’s history has been cluttered with several oil spills. In 1985 a well in Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field blew out and burned for more than a year before it was eventually put out: 3.5 million tons of oil and half a million tons of hydrogen sulfide were burnt in the accident.[1] Moreover, since the field contains a high amount of sulfur (up to 17%), this must be extracted and stored. The problem is that total storage capacity is limited, and the decreasing commercial demand for sulfur meant that storage capacity has tended to reach its upper limit in recent years. For this reason, in 2007 the Kazakh environmental authority imposed a $309 million fine on the TengizChevroil consortium for breaches of environmental regulations, including stockpiling sulfur.[2] Even more recently, in 2013 new satellite imagery revealed that waters around Turkmenbashi suffer dozens of oil spills annually.[3]

But it is not only oil spills and the oil extraction process that contribute to hydrocarbon pollution. Chronic hydrocarbon contamination from washing out tanks and dumping bilge water and other oily waste “represents a danger at least three times higher than that posed by the oil slicks resulting from oil tanker accidents”.[4] Experts acknowledge that during production as much as 2% of the total amount extracted can be lost at sea. Compare this amount with the fact that just one gram of petroleum product is able to render 20,000 liters of water unsuitable for use”.[5]

Moreover, it is not just offshore or coastal oil extraction that contributes to pollution. Experts have estimated that, overall, the rivers that drain into the Caspian Sea carry more than 50% of total oil pollution.[6] In 1996, the level of oil hydrocarbons in the lower reaches of the Terek river on the Russian shores “exceeded the admissible level more than 500 times”.[7]

  • [1] ENVSEC, (2008), p. 45.
  • [2] I. Rucevska, O. Simonett, (2011), p. 49.
  • [3] Crude Accountability (2013), Hidden in Plain Sight: Environmental and Human Rights Violations in theTurkmen Section of the Caspian Sea: “Between 2003 and 2012 (...) the AAAS team has identified between 43and 64 possible oil slicks every year in the Turkmenbashi Bay".
  • [4] A.G. Kostianoy et al., (2007), p. 1.
  • [5] W. Ascher, N. Mirovitskaya, (eds.), (2000), p. 68.
  • [6] ENVSEC, (2008), p. 50.
  • [7] I. Zonn, “The Caspian Sea: threats to its biological resources and environmental security", in G. Chufrin, TheSecurity of the Caspian Sea Region, SIPRI, Stockholm, 2001, p. 76.
 
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