Bosporus Bottleneck Complicates Exports Of Caspian Oil

Giant tankers carrying Russian and Caspian oil to Western markets weave through the narrow curves of the busy Bosporus bisecting Istanbul -a scene Turkey says could be an environmental disaster just waiting to happen.

Turkey's location between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and amid the Middle East, Caucasus and Europe has thrust it to the center of some of the world's fastest-expanding energy markets.

But its increasing status as an energy bridge to the West also has put the key U.S. ally in a difficult spot as it juggles environmental, safety and strategic concerns with growing oil tanker traffic on the Bosporus.

On Wednesday, oil executives and top energy officials from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia key players in a growing Caspian market meet in Istanbul at a conference aiming to promote regional energy cooperation. Efforts to bring an increasing supply of oil, as well as natural gas, from the Caspian and Russia to world markets is expected to top the agenda.

The debate on how to transport the oil to Western markets peaked this year amid what oil industry officials said was the worst Bosporus bottleneck in more than a decade.

The congestion also coincided with calls in Europe and the United States to reduce reliance on Middle Eastern oil, especially with the price of oil rising sharply in recent months.

But bringing new Caspian and Russian resources to the West has proven tricky because it often involves a trip through the Bosporus: the 33.4-kilometer (21-mile) waterway that cuts through the heart of Istanbul.

Fishing boats and ferries shuttle commuters across the strait, which separates Europe and Asia and is the only water passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Turkey says a single slip-up could spill thousands of tons of oil on the shores of Istanbul, a city of more than 12 million people.

"A major shipping disaster on the Bosporus is not a question of if but when," said Nilufer Oral, a lawyer and expert on Turkey's straits. "Right now, it is more feasible for companies to ship oil... (But) this calculation does not take into account the external costs of a potential accident."

Last year, Turkey put into operation a $45 million radar monitoring system to cut the risk of accidents.

Turkey has also introduced new regulations that reduce the number of tankers that can pass through the Bosporus at night - measures some say have led to further delays.

In December and January, for example, a combination of harsh weather, short days and growing traffic clogged the straits and tankers were forced to wait more than a week for transit through the Bosporus. Some oil officials called it the worst delays since the 1991 Gulf War.

Critics say Turkey is using the environment in part to push for pipeline projects from which it stands to gain regional influence and transit fees. Turkish officials say the reasons for the delays were simple: Too much traffic and too much danger.

More than 140 million tons of oil passed through the Bosporus last year -more than double the 60 million tons than passed in 1998, according to Cahit Istikbal, head of the Turkish Maritime Pilots' Association.

Past accidents have closed the Bosporus for days, including a 1994 collision of an oil tanker and a cargo ship that killed 29 sailors.

In December 1999, a Russian-made tanker split in two at the mouth of the strait, spilling 235,000 gallons of fuel and blackening some 10 kilometers (6 miles) of coastline.

Officials say the bottleneck last winter highlight the need to find new ways to bring oil to markets.

Turkey as well as Azerbaijan and Georgia are already taking part in a 1,760-kilometer (1,090-mile) pipeline that aims to bypass the Bosporus and export Azerbaijani oil through the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan by next year.

Convincing Russia and Kazakhstan, who already ship their oil through the Bosporus, to commit to costly Turkish-proposed pipelines from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea or Mediterranean through Ceyhan, isn't likely to be easy.

But analysts say the pressure is growing.

"It's just a mathematical equation... Ultimately, to take more to the market, you need a Bosporus bypass," said Bulent Aliriza, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's still the Middle East that that will dominate for the time being, but the Caspian is starting to make more sense."