L’Oriente e l’Occidente si contendono l’oro nero

San Fran­ci­sco Chro­ni­cle | Dome­ni­ca 9 dicem­bre 2007 | Kel­ly McE­vers |

In 1859, a reti­red rail­way con­duc­tor named Edwin Dra­ke struck oil in a tiny Penn­syl­va­nia town cal­led Titu­svil­le. Back then, cru­de was refi­ned for use in kero­se­ne lamps. Soon, the Dra­ke Well was pum­ping hun­dreds of thou­sands of bar­rels of oil. The Petro­leum Age was under way.
Yet few Ame­ri­cans know that a deca­de befo­re this ama­zing disco­ve­ry, the world’s fir­st com­mer­cial oil well had alrea­dy been plum­bed on a penin­su­la far from Penn­syl­va­nia, a penin­su­la who­se name means “pla­ce of sal­ty waters” — a hook of land that juts into the bri­ny Caspian Sea.
Land­loc­ked by Iran, Turk­me­ni­stan, Kaza­kh­stan, Rus­sia, Azer­bai­jan — names that Ame­ri­cans the­se days might asso­cia­te with an abun­dan­ce of natu­ral resour­ces — the Caspian Sea is actual­ly a lake, but one that hap­pens to blan­ket some of the world’s lar­ge­st oil and gas fields.
To spend time in any of the­se coun­tries, four of which once belon­ged to the Soviet Union, is to see the names such as Che­vron and BP embla­zo­ned on eve­ry­thing from sta­tio­ne­ry to ship­ping con­tai­ners and to won­der, how did Western com­pa­nies get here?
Ste­ve LeVi­ne, an ener­gy cor­re­spon­dent for the Wall Street Jour­nal who cove­red the Caspian region from 1992 to 2003, answers this que­stion in sur­pri­sing detail in “The Oil and the Glo­ry.” Chan­ce mee­tings on pla­nes, Con­nec­ti­cut man­sions, CIA debrie­fings, Carib­bean yacht crui­ses, Gul­fstream jets — all the­se are set pie­ces in LeVine’s account of how, long befo­re it was offi­cial poli­cy, Western oil­men “instinc­ti­ve­ly gra­sped the essen­ce of déten­te” with the Evil Empi­re, and found ways to open it up for busi­ness.
Oil dea­lings bet­ween the West and Soviet Union star­ted as far back as 1928, when Jose­ph Sta­lin laun­ched a five-year plan to revi­ve Soviet indu­stry and “una­ba­shed­ly employed Ame­ri­cans and Euro­peans” to deve­lop the oil fields off the Caspian Sea.
Later, after World War II, when the Allies’ rela­tion­ship with Sta­lin sou­red and the Cold War began, it took midd­le­men, such as a flam­boyant Tur­kish Arme­nian emi­gre in Boston and his pro­te­ge, a wily Cali­for­nia social clim­ber, to open doors for Western oil­men in an other­wi­se clo­sed Soviet Union.
That Cali­for­nian was Jim Gif­fen, who gol­fed and glad-han­ded his way to a job as chief advi­ser to Che­vron, which even­tual­ly signed a momen­tous deal to drill and mana­ge day-to-day ope­ra­tions at a “super­giant” oil field cal­led Ten­giz, just off Kaza­kh­stan in the Caspian Sea — and keep 20 per­cent of the pro­fi­ts.
Gif­fen see­med to know all the right hands to sha­ke in late 1980s Moscow, espe­cial­ly after Soviet Pre­si­dent Mikhail Gor­ba­chev lega­li­zed joint ven­tu­res with the West, and later in Kaza­kh­stan, when it and other repu­blics gai­ned inde­pen­den­ce and were able to nego­tia­te oil deals on their own.
Throu­ghout that hea­dy, chao­tic time, Gif­fen had a par­ti­cu­lar abi­li­ty to make it appear as if his pro­po­sals for Ame­ri­can com­pa­nies to exploit Soviet oil fields had the bles­sing of Washing­ton. The domi­nant fea­tu­re in Giffen’s New York offi­ce, LeVi­ne wri­tes, was pho­to­gra­phs of Gif­fen with key players in the U.S. govern­ment and big oil, inclu­ding one of Con­do­leez­za Rice, who then was on Chevron’s board of direc­tors.
Yet even Gif­fen couldn’t have pre­dic­ted how swif­tly the Soviet Union would col­lap­se — or how fier­ce­ly his allies in Moscow would try to thwart Western ven­tu­res in the new­ly inde­pen­dent, post-Soviet repu­blics.
The Che­vron-Ten­giz deal in Kaza­kh­stan, for instan­ce, got much more com­pli­ca­ted when the com­pa­ny was for­ced to trans­port its cru­de throu­gh old, small Soviet pipe­li­nes, whe­re high-qua­li­ty Ten­giz oil had to mix with a blend of lower-qua­li­ty Rus­sian cru­de, and Rus­sia char­ged high tariffs for the pri­vi­le­ge.
So began a poli­cy shift in the Uni­ted Sta­tes — away from ope­ning up to the enti­re post-Soviet region in favor of exploi­ting Caspian oil whi­le con­tai­ning Rus­sia. But this poli­cy shift did not come easi­ly, LeVi­ne reports, espe­cial­ly given the influen­ce over then-Pre­si­dent Bill Clin­ton of his long­ti­me friend and depu­ty secre­ta­ry of sta­te, Stro­be Tal­bott, who belie­ved that the awa­ke­ning giant, Rus­sia, must be appea­sed at all costs.
Even­tual­ly, thou­gh, mid­le­vel players in the admi­ni­stra­tion were able to make the case that it was in America’s inte­re­st to sup­port an oil pipe­li­ne from East to West that cir­cum­ven­ted Rus­sia, and archri­val Iran. The plan was to start the pipe­li­ne at the Caspian, tra­vel over the moun­tains of new­ly inde­pen­dent Geor­gia and end at the Tur­kish port of Cey­han, on the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea.
LeVi­ne meti­cu­lou­sly recoun­ts the pro­cess of get­ting this pipe­li­ne built — a pro­cess that span­ned more than a deca­de and seve­ral admi­ni­stra­tions in a han­d­ful of coun­tries — pain­ting a rare pic­tu­re of how a few deter­mi­ned poli­cy­ma­kers can alter the geo­po­li­ti­cal map.
That level of detail seems gra­tui­tous the few times LeVi­ne talks to town­speo­ple in the­se far-flung repu­blics, peo­ple without indoor plum­bing who gai­ned lit­tle from the oil boom. The­se pas­sa­ges seem too quick and too for­ced, as does a chap­ter on a fai­led Uno­cal plan to build a pipe­li­ne across Afgha­ni­stan. The only real scoop here is that the com­pa­ny bought and instal­led a fax machi­ne for the Tali­ban.
Other­wi­se, “The Oil and the Glo­ry” is a fine, grip­ping read, one that takes us to a once-for­bid­den land, and sho­ws us how many others have gone befo­re us — and pro­spe­red.

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