With this busy waterway that snakes through the heart of Istanbul seeing increasing traffic, as Central Asian and Caspian oil comes on-stream, local residents - as well as the Turkish government - are worried about what the fallout from a major accident might be.

 

Now, a number of alternative energy routes are under debate that might see this problem addressed. The flipside is, in doing so, they might impinge on a slew of other regional issues.

 

Currently, more than 50,000 ships pass through the Bosphorus every year, of which 19% carry cargoes that Turkey says pose a real and present danger to the population.

 

The Turkish Straits comprise the Istanbul Strait (Bosphorus), the Canakkale Strait (Dardanelles) and the Sea of Marmara. The straits are international waters and still governed by the 1936 treaty of Montreaux, rather than by the Turkish authorities.

 

Quantum leap

 

Many things have changed since 1936, says Erol Yucel, council chairman of the Turkish Chamber of Shipping.

 

"Back then, the amount of oil and oil products transiting the Turkish Straits a year was 65 million tonnes," he said. "Today, the amount of oil and oil products has risen to 135 million tonne."

 

According to Yucel, while 4500 vessels transited the Turkish Straits in 1936 when the Montreaux treaty was signed. Today this figure has reached 50,000.

 

Under the Montreaux treaty, the
straits are international waters

"Once again, while the largest of the ships were 7500 [dead weight] tonnes in the days the treaty was signed, today the figure is 156,000 dwt."

 

The Bosphorus, in particular, presents many challenges to vessels. With several 90-degree turns, fast currents and seasonal winds, over the years many ships have lost steering and collided with the shore or run aground on the shallows.

 

Last winter, six vessels sank in or around the Bosphorus due to bad weather.

 

However, as the straits are international waters, Turkey cannot even oblige vessels to take on pilots to guide them. Indeed, in order to put even a limited ban on traffic during the NATO summit, Turkey had to obtain agreement from the Montreaux signatories.

 

Potential target

 

The doomsday scenario is that oil or petroleum products tankers might lose control and collide in the heart of the city.

 

According to research for the Turkish Foreign Ministry conducted by an Istanbul academic, Yuksel Inan, if a fully laden natural-gas tanker exploded in the Bosphorus, it would have the effect of an atomic bomb far more powerful

than that dropped on Hiroshima. Such an explosion would cause massive damage up to a distance of 50km all around, Inan's study said.

 

"While 4500 vessels transited the Turkish Straits in 1936 when the Montreaux treaty was signed, today this figure has reached 50,000"

Erol Yucel,
C
ouncil Chairman,
Turkish Chamber of Shipping

And the threat of deliberate action causing such a blast is thought to be increasing. In a recent study prepared by NATO, the Turkish Straits were listed as being subject to a "medium-level terrorism threat."

 

It is a threat that Turkey is taking seriously too, says Captain Mustafa Ipte of the Turkish Coast Guard.

 

"The Turkish Navy is jointly conducting activities with NATO," he said. "Moreover, it is carrying out monitoring of the merchant traffic activities in the Turkish Straits in order to contribute to security.

 

"In the Black Sea it has its frigates, submarines and planes as a deterrent force against possible terrorist and illegal activities."

 

Bonanza ahead

 

Yet, while Turkey will be using the NATO summit as a public forum for its concerns over the straits, there is another side to Turkey's campaign to limit this maritime traffic.

 

While Turkey earns almost nothing from ships carrying oil and gas through the international waters, alternative pipelines would likely cross Turkish territory - and fetch Turkey a windfall in the form of transit fees.

 

Ankara has long argued for a network of alternative energy-transit pipelines to bypass the Straits, hoping for a future role as a regional - and intercontinental - energy-transit corridor.

 

Ankara wants a network of oil
pipelines to bypass the straits

The most important of these pipelines at the moment is the US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, already under construction and intended to carry Azeri Caspian Sea oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

 

"The project will make an important contribution to the security of environment and transportation both in the Black Sea and in the Turkish Straits by reducing the annual transportation by 50 million tonnes," Energy Minister Hilmi Guler told an international symposium in Istanbul on 16 June .

 

With the $2.6 billion pipeline due to start operations at the end of 2005, oil-industry insiders are already asking what more will come after this colossal project is completed.

 

The Russian factor

 

"A big project now being seriously considered is an oil pipeline to bypass the Bosphorus, stretching from Turkey's Black Sea coast to the Gulf of Saros in the Northern Aegean," says Gareth Winrow of Istanbul's Bilgi University.

 

But the reasoning behind this may not be purely to avoid congestion in the Bosphorus.

 

"There is likely to be more oil coming from Kazakhstan in the future, and the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline isn't big enough to cope with this," Winrow said.

 

"A big project now being seriously considered is an oil pipeline to bypass the Bosphorus, stretching from Turkey's Black Sea coast to the Gulf of Saros in the Northern Aegean"


Gareth Winrow,
Bilgi University, Istanbul

The project - which is being promoted by Russia's Tatneft corporation - does do one unusual thing though. "Rather ironically," says Winrow, "it brings Turkey and Russia together on a major Bosphorus bypass pipeline."

 

Russia has long been one of the staunchest proponents of tankers exercising their right to use the Turkish Straits, and had long been opposed to the BTC route, fearing it would boost US and Turkish influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

 

"Since the 1990s, there have been a string of other projects to build bypass oil pipelines - between Bulgaria and Greece, across to Croatia, through Romania - but none of these have come to anything as the Russians, Bulgarians and Greeks could not agree about them," said Winrow.

 

"The BTC jumped ahead of all these other projects, and Turkey could jump ahead again if this Black Sea-Gulf of Saros route gets off the ground."

 

Grand scheme

 

Another proposal is for an oil pipeline from Samsun, on Turkey's northern Black Sea shore, across Anatolia to Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean. This could link to existing pipelines and would avoid a growing level of concern over the environmental impact of any route to the nature haven of the Gulf of Saros.

 

Meanwhile, there are also a number of new projects under discussion for gas pipelines.

 

One of these would use the same route as the BTC, running from Baku across the Caucasus to the eastern Turkish city of Erzerum. Another is projected to link up Turkey and Greece, two old foes now finding common ground in energy. The idea is for this to then cross under the Adriatic Sea and into Italy.

 

NATO's summit is an ideal forum
for Turkey to make itself heard

"The European Union has a grand scheme," says Winrow,  "that by 2020, it doesn't want to be so dependent on Russian natural gas."

 

Currently, Russia is the main supplier for many European countries - and Turkey.

 

"Instead, the EU wants to shift its gas supplies to Azerbaijan and the Caspian, so a number of major gas projects aimed at securing this are being looked at now."

 

In this context, another major project under discussion is the NABUCCO project, which foresees a gas pipeline of 20 to 30 billion cubic metres per year capacity connecting Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria in 10 to 15 years' time.

 

The Turkey-Greece gas pipeline will start at 750 million cubic metres, rising to three billion a few years later, with an extra eight billion cubic metres a year planned to go via this route to Italy.

 

"The question in all this," adds Winrow, "is where will all this gas come from?"

 

This may be a question framing more than just energy policy in the years to come, as it may have a major impact on many regional alignments.

 

"Turkey and Iraq, for example," says Winrow, "have had a deal since 1996 for Iraq to supply 10 billion cubic metres of gas a year. That's not happening now, but if the security situation in Iraq improved, that could restart."

 

Food for thought

 

If Europe does shift to Azeri and Caspian gas supplies, this would have a major impact on one of Russia's main export items.

 

Azerbaijan and Turkey have re-export agreements that allow for Turkey to act as a regional energy hub and sell Azeri gas on to Europe. Iran also seems likely to conclude a similar contract.

 

But at the moment, much of Turkey's gas comes from Russia, and the Russians may not be so keen to let Turkey become the region's chief energy trader.

 

"The Turkish Navy is jointly conducting activities with NATO...
In the Black Sea it has
its frigates, submarines and planes as a deterrent force against possible terrorist and illegal activities"

Captain Mustafa Ipte,
Turkish Coast Guard

"Russia has no re-export agreement with Turkey," says Winrow, "and Turkey will have some hard bargaining ahead of it if it wants to get one and may have to give the Russians a lot in return."

 

How this will play out in the years to come is what regional experts and planners are now pondering. Egypt too is a player, as its gas pipeline to Jordan is aimed at eventually reaching Turkey too.

 

"If you look 10 to 20 years ahead," says Winrow, "you see that Turkey is quite ideally situated geographically. If it plays its cards right, it could emerge as a major energy hub."

 

Food for thought as delegates for the NATO conference assemble on the banks of the narrow, crowded Bosphorus this weekend.