Turkey pipeline blast rekindles security concerns

Eric Watkins
Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 7 -- Oil has resumed flowing through one of the twin Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines following an explosion on one of the lines near the town of Bozova, in the mainly Kurdish province of Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey.

The announcement, which came just as European energy officials were in the country discussing plans for the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, made no mention of foul play.

"There is currently oil flowing through the pipeline at about 300,000-350,000 b/d," said an official of pipeline operator Botas. "We had to cut the flow after the explosion, but then diverted the oil to the other line, so it is flowing again," he said.

"We expect that the repair won't take more than 3 days, it depends also on the availability of pipe for the line," the Botas official said.

Sabotage downplayed
Iraq's northern crude oil export system, which runs from the northern Kirkuk oil fields to the Turkish Mediterranean export terminal at Ceyhan, is comprised of two parallel pipelines with a nominal capacity of 1.5 million b/d.

Since the US-led war of 2003, the line has been running at a reduced capacity due to attacks by insurgents as well as erratic production from Iraq's northern oil fields.

In September, the privately-owned Sbay media website cited an official from Iraq's North Oil Co. who said the Kirkuk-Ceyhan line had been attacked by armed men near Mosul and that exports would be suspended for 3 days.

In this week's shutdown, Turkish officials downplayed the possibility of sabotage.

"Valves on the double line were closed on Nov. 5 when Botas officials noticed a sharp change in pressure resulting from the explosion. The cause of the blast has yet to be determined," the official said.

Earlier, local officials in the province of Sanliurfa said the explosion had resulted from high pressure within the pipeline and not from sabotage.

"Thank goodness it's not sabotage," said Sanliurfa governor Yusuf Yavascan. "According to investigations the pipeline broke from the inside out. This shows the explosion was due to excessive pressure."

Security uncertainty
According to analyst BMI, however, the sector of this week's explosion has been at the center of violence perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"Violence has increased in the mostly Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey in reaction to Turkish military operations against PKK bases in northern Iraq and its members inside the country," BMI said.

In BMI's view, "if militants are found to be responsible for the attack on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, the security of Turkey as a transit country may be further called into doubt."

In particular, BMI said, "Doubts over Turkey's future as an energy transit hub for the EU would make the Union's flagship Nabucco pipeline project far less likely to proceed."

In that regard, the explosion could not have been better timed, coming just as EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs met Turkey's President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Hilmi Guler to discuss mutual concerns about the Nabucco pipeline.

Concerns over pipeline security in Turkey were raised in August of this year when the separatist PKK claimed responsibility for a blast that shut down the BP PLC-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in August.

If this week's attack is linked to the PKK or any other group, it would also undermine broader plans by governments in the region to step up their role as an energy transit hub.

Plans undermined
In October, eyeing cooperation with neighbors Turkey and Iran, Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said his country plans to expand the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline and construct a parallel natural gas export line.

"Interdependence in the energy sector can help regional economic development," Al-Shahristani said, adding, "Iraq is ready to do whatever is necessary to enhance relations with its neighbors, especially in the field of energy."

Al-Shahristani's remarks followed a July 10 visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Baghdad.

Erdogan's visit covered a wide range of energy issues, including expansion of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil line as well as construction of a parallel gas export pipeline to Turkey to supply the long-planned Nabucco line.

"Plans for the line will be subject to discussion and several sources within Iraq for the gas are being examined," said a spokesman, who added that a number of virgin gas fields in the Kurdish region of Iraq are a possible source.

Ominously perhaps, Erdogan's visit did not include any meetings with representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government, which controls the region of Iraq through which the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil line passes and through which any new gas line would have to pass.

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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