North-Caspian Oil Exploitations: Waking Up A Fire And Poison-spitting Ogre/I
Much has been written about the investment chronicle concerning the field of Kashagan, the master scheme that should have pushed Kazakhstan up to the calibre of oil giants in the company of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Venezuela and Iran. The project turned into a classic among cases of investment mismanagement, and with the fall of oil prices two years ago the bounty theory made place for a save-what-you-can theory. What remains unchanged, though, is the threat of an ecological disaster, comparable to waking up a giant monstrous dragon from its sleep and letting it break away, next to which the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like mere traffic accidents. This threat is often dismissed with a haughty smile by oil and gas executives. But it is there, underneath, and ready to spurt upwards to kill all life over a vast territory.
When the ancient gods agreed to build the cosmos and rule over it collectively with the aim to keep it a haven of peace and stability, one of them disagreed and proposed to turn it to a bastion of power from which the rest of the universe could be conquered by storm. When his peers refused, the dissident, enraged, claimed the cosmos for himself. He took a land later known as Hyrcania as his stronghold. Soon the signs of his presence appeared: the birds had disappeared from the sky, the fish from the sea,, the animals from the land. The area became barren and rotten, the soil infertile, the stars invisible by the thick smoke filling the air.
A fight then broke out in which the rebellious god (Lucifer in biblical traditions, Adharma in the Hindu Vedas, Ahriman in Zoroastrian lore, and lately dubbed Melkor or Morgoth by John Tolkien) long held the upper hand, until his most powerful rival (known in various traditions as Gabriel, Krishna, Ahura and Tulkas (Tolkien), and St.George in catholic lore, challenged the dissenter to a duel, which the latter accepted.
After he had been defeated, he took the shape of a giant dragon, not consisting of flesh but of blazing smoke, rock, ash and slick, and fled the scene through a hole, today known as Kara Bogaz, but also located further inland on the Turkmen mainland in a place called Darvaza, that carried him to the inner layers of the earth crust. Before slipping in, the evil one left a breed of tiny creatures on the surface with the assignment to wake him up as soon as they deemed that the gods of old were either forgotten or had withdrawn beyond the limits of the cosmos, leaving his prey vacant and giving him an opportunity to return.
Today, the giant mass of blazing smoke, ash, sand, rock and liquid remains asleep in his underground. On the surface, however, the scene of the location where the legend is supposed to have taken place looks almost idyllic. The calm sea ripples, fish swirl beneath the surface of the shallow waters. Seagulls and smaller birds glide beneath the scant clouds in the blue sky. On the shore, seals land to dry their skins in the sun. The only odd appearance in this quiet Eldorado are the drilling platforms on and off the shore. More of them appear by the decade, and more are in the planning, with the aim to get hold of the precious cash-generating treasure deep underground in order to make some people even much richer than they already are and the poor a little less poor.
But the price eventually paid to mother earth is high, and even more serious are the dangers to which the northern waters of the Caspian Sea and their shorelands are exposed. Because deep underneath, there is a completely different reality in the form of a massive inferno challenging one’s most horrible imagination with boiling, smoking and blazing substances fizzling and sizzling under hair-raising pressures and temperatures.
It looks like an underground mini-version of the sun with its frightful explosions and implosions diming the starlight and challenging the universe. Under the soil of the “pre-Caspian” depression, which stretches from the eastern Caucasus to the downstream section of the Volga and from there into northern Central-Asian steppe lands, continuous subterranean tempests of eruptions bursting into the subsoil rock formations, spitting flames, hot-glowing gas and chemical poison brews towards the earth’s surface mark the nightmarish scene.
In cases they reach and break through that surface, hell indeed breaks loose – literally and figuratively speaking. Normally, a tornado reaching for the sky loses strength as it gets higher and higher. These outbursts from the womb of the earth, however, known by an incredible euphemism as blowouts, gain strength along with height. The atmosphere works as a fuse, which multiplies the force with which the boiling and burning mix of splintered rock, dust, mud and gas shoots into the sky, still boiling and burning as it comes down again, able, in the most dramatic cases, to turn entire areas of the size of an average American state or mid-size European country into scorched, lifeless moon landscapes.
Blowouts or gushers are nothing new in the oil industry. The history of Baku and its surrounding lands is virtually written in them. Since times immemorial, nature itself made them occur in the form of columns of fire, gas, pieces of rock and liquids bursting out of the ground hundreds of metres high into the air. They are still known as “mud-volcano” eruptions even though they are not volcanoes but hydrocarbon-holding tectonic traps under such hyper-pressure that they burst right through the earth crust that seals them. If hit by an oil drill, they push themselves up with similar strength. This is known as a gusher, or blowout, in professional drilling jargon. They occurred from the very first stage in industrial oil exploitation in the area, and still happen causing fire and destruction on the surface first and pollution in the air, the water and the soil later.
But there is a difference. The onshore and offshore fields in the middle of the Caspian Sea, roughly along the line Absheron-Cheleken, are of anticlinal structure. An anticline is an upward fold in the earth’s crust which absorbs deposits of oil and gas from deeper layers where they were earlier generated from sediments of plasma – hence the name fossil fuel. That happened in the wake of the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, which were market with an abundance of vegetation and animal life one earth. After a cosmic disaster that marked the end of this period and the cause of which remains unclear (some suggest a meteorite “bombardment” from space), thick layers of dead plasma remained behind, and once sealed by rock layers on top transformed into hydrocarbon fuel reserves.
The northern Caspian reservoirs are of a different structure, much larger and far less fragmentary than their counterparts in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The magnitude of blowouts is therefore such that they dwarve those of the mid-Caspian. The first one occurred in 1972, when in the night from 24 to 25 August on a platform off the Kazakh shore a huge explosion could be heard and seen, sending hot-blazing debris more than a kilometre high into the air, and coming down, still burning, like a cosmic thunder shower, in a range of several kilometres. The platform itself broke into seven pieces; according to reports disclosed much later, no one was hurt and all crew members could be saved – just for those who wanted to believe that.
A similar “accident” seems to have taken place in 1983, although even less details are known – even under Gorbatchov’s glasnost all that was considered ecological remained strictly classified. The biggest blowout, according to information divulged only after the break-up of the USSR, took place in 1985 at the onshore field of Tengiz. “A failure in well nr. 37 ended up in a giant 300m high and 50m wide column of flame hitting from beneath the earth,” a report only publicised more than a decade later was to read. “The temperature around the well reached 1500oC turning the soil into glassy mass. The radius of negative impact stretched up to 400km rocketing people’s sickness rate by 50% and killing thousands of migrating birds. The world had never seen such a powerful ejection of oil, therefore no country had the experience and methodology to respond to disasters of this kind;”
This time, the public outcry was such that the Soviet authorities felt them “It was stated that inside Well 37, an intensive redistribution of remaining drilling mud and natural fluids (crude, formation water) under the cement plug at the depth of 1320-1439m was taking place increasing the formation pressure and creating extra hydraulic load on casing strings,” the report quoted above reads further down. This changes the structure of pipes and cement layer that surrounds them – as a result they crack and break what may lead to massive flow of fluids to above formations (inside and around a bore) and create huge risk of repeated inter-string influx. Besides, H2S corrosion of casing strings well contributes to the process, gradually fracturing metal structures over a period of 25 to 30 years.” (to be continued)