North-Caspian Oil Exploitations: Waking Up A Fire And Poison-spitting Ogre/II

North-Caspian Oil Exploitations: Waking Up A Fire And Poison-spitting Ogre/II

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.

by Charles van der Leeuw, writer, news analyst

North-Caspian Oil Exploitations: Waking Up A Fire And Poison-spitting Ogre/II

Deep down, the formation of the inferno from where it all erupts goes back hundreds of millions of years back in tie. Most of it all took place during the first two eras, the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, of the Phenerozoic eon – the third, Cenozoic era of which comprises the time we live in. The Phenerozoic era started some 550 (543 to be precise according to geologists) years back in time, and was preceded by the proterozoic era, which in turn was part of the last stage of the Precambrian “super-eon” that started with the formation of the Earth within the solar system., which took place just over 4.5 billion years ago. As the name indicates, the protereozoic era was the time when life was borm in the waters flowing on Earth, and thereby the foundation for today’s oil, gas and coal reserves was laid.

Even though deeper in the ground more ancient fossils are thought to be buried, with a potential for the formation of hydrocarbon deposits, it is likely that such deposits are out of reach even with the most sophisticated drilling technologies one could think of. Moreover, at such depths under extreme pressures and temperatures, oil is more than likely to have been “cooked” a long time ago. The oldest, and thereby deepest deposits that are open to exploration and exploitation for us were formed by dead plasma-bearing sediments which date from the Devonian and early Carboniferous ages and were put in place between 418 and 250 million years back in time. Between around 200 and 146 million years ago, during most of the Permian age, the first tectonic movements that isolated, or “sealed” the sediments’ accumulatons from the atmosphere, occurred, which allowed the chemical process leading to the composition of oil, gas and coal to take place.

The “first round” of oil and gas pool formation underground was followed by a second one, which started in the middle of the Phenerozoic eon with the subsequent Triassic and Jurassic periods. In the meantime, life, which had started to overpopulate the oceans around the globe, seems to have started to suffer from lack of oxigene just as the need for it, as life forms developed from micro-organisms into more sophisticated forms with jaws, bones and a wider variety of appetite. It was thus that during the Permian age, the first life forms started to conquer the Earth’s dry land. On the northern hemisphere, the place they settled has been dubbed Rodinia by present-day geologists. At the heart of it was the place where these days people are defying hardship and hazards to pump up the yield of the ancient victims of the turbulent history of life on Earth, in the northeastern part of the Caspian Sea.

Most of the sediments transformed into oil date from before 250 million years ago, mainly thanks to mega-tectonic reshuffles. In the late Paleozoic era, Rodinia disintegrated and as chops of it drifted apart in all directions, a new ocean dubbed Panthalassa was formed. This “pool of life” in turn was “buried” under solid rock with the reversal of the earlier process, as the remains of Rodinia started to move in a centripetal direction and Panthalassa became “squeezed” leaving but a small pocket of waters intact which is today’s Pre-Caspian depression, also known as the Tartar Arch, which has the axis between the peninsulas of Absheron and Cheleken as its southern boundary and stretches towards the north until the mid-stream Volga province. The new super-continent, dubbed Pangea, was based on solid rock that sealed off the Panthalassa basin and the remains of its one-time abundant life.

Moveover, the drying-up of the waters and its subterranean compression led to the formation of salt domes, which were to function as stabilisers for the oil and gas deep underground. The reason is that while the rock formations are excellent conductors which can carry power levels of up to 100 Ohm per metre of thickness, the salt domes are even much more highly resistive and can constrain up to 1,000 Ohm per metre. Together, they keep hydrocarbon reservoirs stable even under extreme pressures and temperatures, which in the case of the northeastern Caspian tend to exceed 30,000 atmospheres and come close to 1,000 degrees Celcius respectively, both around one-third in excess of average pressures and temperatures in the middle parts of the earth crust.

In the northeast Caspian and its shorelands alone, more than 1,200 salt domes have been identified varying in diameter between 3 and 50 kilometre. The domes are grouped, connected with each other through “salt bridges”, in circular strings, or “rings” surrounding each other, with Kashagan forming part of one of them. It has been dubbed Shantalinsko-Cheremsay by Soviet geologists who identified it with the help of acoustic, magnetic and other types of tests. The overall pattern of the ring structure consists of an outer circular zone with extreme gravity, counterbalanced by an inner zone of extremely low gravity. The two zones are separated by complex fault structures.

The Devonian origin of northeastern Caspian oil and gas in deeper layers on the bottoms of such salt dome rings are only part of the overall story. For the overwhelming majority of the oil and gas won around the globe today dates from the subsequent Triassic and Jurassic periods, when both under water and on land the Earth witnessed one more outburst of organic life. The abundance of plants in the thick forests covering Pangea allowed mainly plant-eating animals to grow to gigantic proportions, featuring dino- and brontosaurians. In the end, as the climate seems to have become warmer and dryer, vegetation started to dwindle and predatory reptiles joined the company, featuring the much-feared tyrannosaur.

The life-boom, in any case, laid the base for new plasma-bearing sediments which were buried with the break-up of Pangea and the formation of the Paleo-Tethys ocean, around 120 years ago towards the middle of the Cretaceous era. This “mass burial” coincided with another change for the worse in the overall climate on the northern hemisphere, as a result of which life on land became all but extinct.

History was to repeat itself twice in the tens of millions of years that were to follow. First, the Paleo-Tethys ocean was to shrink by approaching and colliding subcontinents. As they drifted apart once more, the Tethys ocean emerged from the centrifugal tectonic shift – more swiftly and smaller in size than its predecessor. All this created conditions for “younger” hydrocarbon deposits to be formed, consisting of Triassic and Jurassic sediments. They are topping the salt domes and bridges at depths between one and two kilometer beneath the (shallow) seabed, whereas the Devonian reservoirs are located below the domes, at depths between 7 and 10 kilometre underground.

The conditions that lead to the high risks, which have not been addressed by the Kashagan consortium and therefore remain a giant infernal time bomb under the entire project’s infrastructure, were already well-known to and publicized by the Soviets ever since the entry of glasnost. “The North Caspian oil-gas province is located on the southeastern margin of the East European craton. It extends over an area of more than 500,000 sq km,” an article published in 1995 by Petroleum Geology read. “The Lower Permian Kungurian salt complex of this depression consists largely of salt but also contains lenses of anhydrite, clastics, and carbonate. Original thickness is estimated at 2-3 km; however, it has flowed plastically into some 1200 salt structures. This salt is the seal for pools in the underlying section and is the main factor for trapping hydrocarbons in the section above the salt. During the last two decades new types of salt-related traps have been described, thereby broadening prospects for oil and gas. Bedded salt conformable with the enclosing rocks is found in the border areas of the depression. Thickness there ranges from tens of meters to 200-300 m, and anhydrite is common. Height of salt domes ranges from 500-1000 m on the borders of the depression to 8-9 km in the central part. The North Caspian depression has practically no solitary domes. On the whole they combine into salt ridges or merge into single gigantic domes.”

The salt domes are the structures that keep the “sleeping dragon” deep in the inner layers of the earth’s crust asleep – until some intrusion by a bunch of stupid humans on the surface wakes it up in rage. “Three types of domes are recognised: non-piercing, crypto-piercing, and piercing. The non-piercing domes have caused weak deformation of the overlying Triassic rocks. The Triassic-Cenozoic section is preserved above these domes. The crypto-piercing domes penetrate to various stratigraphic levels of the Mesozoic. The Triassic is absent in places with Jurassic resting on the salt. Crests of piercing domes typically subcrop beneath the Neogene cover or penetrate to the surface. Traps associated with these salt domes are classified as supra-dome, peripheral, flank, sub-cornice, and infra-dome. The supra-dome structures are those associated with the upper surface of the dome from its highest part to the boundary where the flank plunges into inter-domal space. The peripheral features are highs located along the margins of a dome above a steep flank but still above the top of the dome. In spite of limited reserves, peripheral traps qualify as supplemental targets in fields where the main production is from other types of traps.”

The traps are the key to both the precious black gold they are containing and the havoc their opening up is likely to cause. Pressures and temperatures here are at their highest, and so is the content of sulphur which once in touch with the open atmosphere transforms itself ito the notorious H2S “killer gas”. “Two classes of structure occur on the flanks of domes: traps beneath tongues of salt that extend out from the dome (cornices) and beds that abut up dip against the salt. The infra-dome traps are in reservoir rock that is included between salt beds of different age. In the border areas of the depression where the salt occurs as a blanket, the salt beds and overlying sediments level out the relief on the sub-salt complex, thereby creating traps. Such traps are common in the southern part of the depression. Traps related to faults along the border of the depression are small and have low closures. Non-piercing domes in the border areas of the depression form anticlines that range in size from 2 by 1 km to 6 by 3 km. They are host to pools with significant reserves; however, their number is small.”

Even without calamities such as the one occurred on Tengiz, which in itself should be considered a minor-size incident considering what could happen in case of a subsalt blowout, the situation in the northern Caspian Sea and its surrounding lands is bad enough. An NGO called Greenwomen had research carried out shortly before the end of the last century revealed nightmarish conditions in the region’s environment which were most embarrassing both for the new oil and gas operators which appeared to have ignored the problem and for the authorities having done nothing to make them clean up the mess.

“Phenol concentration in the water of North-eastern areas of Caspian Sea was 0,003-0,009 milligramme per litre (3-9 MLC), [and] synthetic surface-active substances 0,008-0,029 milligramme per litre (1-3 MLC),” the report read. “Chlorine-organic pesticides are almost constantly present in the water. […] Wolves as representatives of the biological type placed at the top of the feeding chain had concentration of polychlorine biphenyl of 32037 microroengen/kg of the internal fat weight, while the normal level is 2 microroengen/kg.”

But this is not all. Radioactive agents, notably thorium, radium and potassium, has been spotted into the new millennium at 267 sites divided over 22 oil fields, most of which have been abandoned or been flooded in the mid-1990s when the Caspian Sea all of a sudden started to rise dramatically by several metre within just a couple of years. The power of the radium and thorium radiation is 100 to17000 microroentgen per hour,” the report reads. “The total population affected is around 100 thousand.”

The oil fields that put the western provinces of Kazakhstan under serious threat have been listed in the report, and comprise Western and East-Central Prorva, Teren-Uzek, Tazhigaly, Kokarna, Eastern Kokarna, Kara-Arna, Morskoe, Pustynnoe, Pribrezhnoe, South-Western Tazhigaly, Votahan, Karsak, Martyshy, South-Eastern and South-Western Kamyshytovoe, Zaburune, Zhanatalap. “Eastern Kokarna, Tazhigaly, Teren-Uzek were flooded in 1995. Some of these wells, like those in Eastern Kokarna, remained under water. Some areas, like the Tazhigaly oil field, have been flooded and dried up several times in the course of the second half of the XXth Century.

Nobody seems to know why and explanations vary from draining of water supplies from the Volga and other rivers that flow into the Caspian Sea to tectonic activity in the seabed. Some historic explanations refer to a phenomenon known as Boz Gol – or Dark Hole – a leak in the earth’s crust that shrinks and expands periodically and thereby slurps varying amounts of water from the sea basin. Fact is that the water level does go up and down periodically, without much of a pattern and often with incredible speed. Thus, at the time of Gorbatchov’s perestroika the sea level was steadily lowering, from less than 24 metre under ocean level to a long-time low of more than 27 metre towards the end of the 1980s. Then, the tide switched and in 1995 the level stood at 26.6 metre, only to stop there and slowly falling once more, a process that still continues.

There is a lesson here nobody seems to want to take seriously. Pretending to take after Zarathustra (and doing the ancient philosopher wrong) Friedrich Nietzsche, who in reality took morefrom the Greek philosopher Zeno, who claimed that if the gods ever existed, they had withdrawn now, leaving the earth and the sky to the guardianship of men. As for Nietzsche, he has been unjustly labeled a nihilist and an atheist. Wrong: he believed that Man is of divine origin, that God had withdrawn from creation (“died” – in a metaphoric sense) since he had left the human ego with enough power to manage it. In this way, Nietzsche’s way of thinking has much in common with both that of Epicurism and Islamic thought – Sunnite in particular – according to which “God keeps silent” after he spoke the last word to the Prophet, giving the human race the task to be the “shepherd of creation” until the Last Day when time has fulfilled its cycle and all will be as it was in the beginning.

Nietzsche grants Man the same sort of supreme responsibility. Only Man has the power to ultimately create and ultimately destroy. Faith lies, wrote Nietzsche. Both true and wrong – in this, the philosopher belies his own thesis. Faith in one’s own vision is true by definition, whereas faith in borrowed visions is speculative and thereby fake. Essentials play a hide-and-seek game with the human genius: “Cogito – ergo sum” – often wrongly translated into “I think, therefore I am”. The Latin word cogitare – a combination of com which is the adverb referring to mutual, communicative action and the verbal root for acting – fundamentally means taking action together. Therefore, the true meaning of Descartes’ statement is “I observe, and act accordingly”. referring to thinking as a conclusive act rather than a merely arbitrary one the word thinking implies.

So what has all this to do with the hydrocarbon bounty underneath the wider Caspian region? Everything. Anything that is not made by man (and this one definitely is not) can be unmade by man but this only leads to his and his living environment’s destruction. The only way for man to act responsible in his role of “guardian of creation” is to preserve it, not to manipulate it, driven by his own greed.

by Charles van der Leeuw, writer, news analyst