A blast on the Turkish section of BP’s South Caucasus Gas Pipeline has shut down fuel exports, putting a stop to gas exports from Azerbaijan to Turkey.
The Turkish Ministry of Energy has claimed that the explosion was due to an attack, blaming the Kurdish PKK rebels, although a technical failure is also possible.
Such fears are common along the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline and parallel Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Villagers in Akhali-Samgori in Georgia narrowly escaped disaster when bombs were dropped alongside a nearby pipeline during the 2008 war with Russia. Platform quotes local residents in The Oil Road as saying, “We were afraid even before the recent war, but more so now. We feel like the village is occupied by the pipelines. Many of us weren’t even properly compensated, and none of us have gas. The gas could kill us – but we can’t cook with it.” These fears are legitimate – explosions on the gas pipe threaten to wipe out whole villages. Precisely this happened to the residents of Machuca in Colombia in 1998, when BP’s pipeline there was blown up: sixty-six villagers died and hundreds more were wounded.
The damaged pipeline carries gas sucked from the Shah Deniz field deep beneath the Caspian Sea over the Caucasus mountains and the Anatolian plateau, where it feeds into the Turkish gas grid. This section of the pipeline belongs to Turkish state oil company Botas, but is recognised as an essential link in BP’s regional pipeline network, including by USAID.
Whether the blast this week resulted from an attack by the Kurdish PKK or from a technical fault, it will definitely lead to a higher Jendarma presence and increased repression within the area, where there is a sizable Kurdish community. Villagers and activists supporting them in the Ardahan province, just north of the explosion, have suffered state torture and harassment due to their critiques of the pipeline. Fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebel forces has already been escalating in recent months.
The actual cause of the blast will be difficult to identify – especially given the interests of government ministries, companies and the PKK in all pushing specific narratives. In The Oil Road, we investigated the possible origin of a 2008 explosion of the sister Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline – a few hundred kilometres west of Yagbasan and Catag:
The first possibility is that it was a technical fault. We know from the statements by the whistleblowers that construction of the pipeline in Turkey had been substandard. Infrastructure accidents had been common in the two years since oil had begun to flow along the pipeline. Only six weeks prior to the explosion, BTC’s repair team completed welding work after eighteen months of problems at one point on the pipeline not far to the west. In September 2008, barely a month after the fire, a faulty valve at the nearby Sivas pumping station caused a tempo- rary shutdown.
However, the second possibility – that the pipeline was blown-up – appears more likely, especially given that the PKK claimed responsibility. Bahoz Erdal, second in command of the Kurdish group, explained that ‘as an economic target we chose to attack the BTC pipeline because we think that attacks like these would stop Turkey from pursuing its aggression toward the Kurds’. Targeting pipelines is not unusual for the PKK. In March 2008, the rebels claimed responsibility for a blast on a gas pipeline from Iran; the following November they blew up the Kirkuk–Ceyhan oil pipeline. The increased focus on pipelines coincided with a drop in hit-and-run attacks on Turkish military convoys. This shift in tactics took place at the same time that the USA started providing ‘actionable real-time satellite intelligence’ to the Turkish Army, gathered by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at Fort Hood in Texas. This made PKK movements far harder. Blowing up BTC could have been intended partly as a message to the US military, who would have registered the explosion.
This second theory is in BP’s interests, as it would mean that the damage occurred due to Turkey’s failure to protect the pipeline, as required by the Host Government Agreement. In his Tbilisi office, Matthew Taylor had told us: ‘Remember that security is the responsibility of government.’ He added a sceptical note implying that Turkey would try to dodge any liability: ‘Turkey will say it’s examining the causes – investigating and investigating, for thirty years – until this is all forgotten.’
There is a further theory as to what lay behind the pipeline explosion: involvement by the ‘deep state’, or derin devlet. While, to outsiders, ‘deep state’ may sound overly conspiratorial, it is a very real entity to many Turks. This shadowy network – involving ultranationalist ‘Grey Wolves’, secular politicians, the military elite and mafia bosses – intervened regularly in Turkish politics throughout the previous three decades. It has assassinated leftist, Kurdish and Islamist activists, participated in military coups, and committed ‘false flag operations’ that were subsequently blamed on the PKK. Blowing up BTC would fall easily within the capabilities of this group.
Will we ever know why the pipeline blew up this time, between the villages of Yagbasan and Catag? Quite possibly not, given the competing narratives, secrecy and manipulation. But what is clear is that BP’s pipeline system has brought danger to North-eastern Anatolia, just as the company’s pipeline first threatened and then destroyed communities in Colombia.