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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