Friday, 15 June 2012

Natural Gas Europe - The BTE Pipeline Blast: The Implications of Sabotage

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe - original here.

At the end of May, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline carrying gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey blew up in the Turkish section. Full supplies were suspended until 11 June, whilst repair work was carried out on the line. The extent of the damage and the reluctance of Turkish officials to confirm the cause have led to widespread speculation that Kurdish militants were responsible.

If this is the case it underlines the ongoing security threats to gas supplies to Turkey, and highlights the risks which new pipelines to bring Caspian gas to Europe may face. Although Ankara has emphasised the importance of securing critical energy infrastructure, pipelines remain extremely vulnerable. Whilst the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) remains active, providing perfect security will remain impossible.

Information about the BTE blast, which took place on 29 May in or near the city of Kars, remains extremely scarce.  The route of the BTE pipeline runs through Turkey’s northeast and eastern regions, a little outside the PKK’s normal operating area of southeastern Turkey but certainly not out of their reach. A 2008 attack on the BTC oil pipeline took place in Refahiye, which is significantly west of Kars and also out of the PKK’s usual operating area.

An investigation by Platts’s well-connected John Roberts indicates that sabotage is the most likely cause. Sources suggested that Turkish intelligence has pointed the finger at the PKK, and Turkey’s BOTAS – which operates the Turkish section of the pipeline - has reportedly failed (as of 5 June) to give a formal explanation for the incident to either diplomats or the Shah Deniz consortium which supplies the BTE.

This obfuscation could seem surprising, but Turkish authorities have a certain track record on denying sabotage. Interestingly they seem to be most reticent about attacks on the BTC and BTE, suggesting that these projects are the most sensitive and significant. The PKK have also made no official claim of responsibility to date, although the group is often slow to acknowledge its attacks.

Assuming that the PKK were responsible, what does this mean for Turkish energy security and for the future of Caspian gas transit to Europe? 

The first thing to acknowledge is that such attacks are very rare, given the cost/benefit ratio of blowing up pipelines. It takes only a few men and some explosives to blow up the pipeline and cause several million dollars’ worth of damage. As one expert noted in late 2008, after an attack on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, “I don't know why PKK hasn't attacked energy infrastructure more”.

Although gas pipelines from Iraq and Iran are targeted frequently, the BTC and BTE have been largely spared. This probably reflects a combination of their distance from traditional PKK areas, enhanced security measures, and concern about the severity of the response (given the strategic and regional significance of the pipelines).

However the fact remains that the BTE was knocked out for a week, cutting off 16% of Turkey’s daily gas use. It forced the country to rely on stored supplies and expensive imports from Russia (supplies from Iran are suspended due to a commercial dispute). Turkey’s gas security is thus dependent on the PKK’s unwillingness or inability to keep hitting the BTE. 

The attack also has concerning implications for Caspian gas supplies to Europe, which will cross Turkey (probably through the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline). One reason why BOTAS is reluctant to admit sabotage may be concerns about investor confidence in the Southern Corridor. Regular PKK sabotage would require a commensurate increase in the cost of security provision along TANAP, which would be largely shouldered by BOTAS. This could also cause frustrations among BOTAS’s partners – namely Azerbaijan’s Socar and the international companies in the Shah Deniz consortium.

The repercussions of any attacks would also be far more serious. TANAP is slated to carry at least 16bcm/year, rising to 24bcm/year, whilst the BTE carries only 6.6bcm/year. This would run directly to Europe, possibly through supply-vulnerable southeastern Europe. A major attack, or a combination of strikes on the pipeline, could cut off gas to the Balkans and force them to fall back on Russian gas or limited storage supplies. The scenario of a ‘perfect storm’, in which another Russia-Ukraine gas war coincides with a PKK shutdown of Europe’s Southern Corridor, is all too easy to envisage.

There are two solutions. The first, which European officials repeatedly emphasise, is flexibility within Europe. Greater interconnectedness, better storage, and more efficient usage would mitigate the impact of supply disruptions in the Southern Corridor. Within Turkey itself, new supply sources and increased gas storage will also limit the effects of sabotage.

The second and more crucial solution is for Turkey to find a long-term solution to its Kurdish problem. Until the militants are taken out of the equation, pipeline sabotage will continue to be a Sword of Damocles over the region’s vulnerable energy supplies. Neither Turkey nor Europe can afford for gas security to be held hostage by the PKK.


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