OKIOC has so far spent over $100 million to overhaul drilling procedures and equipment. In addition OKIOC has conducted an intensive public relations campaign in an attempt to assuage concerns among local residents that oil extraction could pose a threat to the environment.
Kazakhstan government officials have expressed satisfaction with OKIOC's environmental strategy. Minister of Natural Resources and Enviromental Protection Serikbek Daukeyev told journalists on March 6 that he is satisfied will OKIOC's standards. "The company is disposing of all waste in line with existing requirements and we have no awful violantions," Daukeyev told the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
The minister added that government agencies are working to improve standards, including guidelines covering the disposal of both solid and liquid wastes.
Meanwhile, the five Caspian states - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan - agreed on March 13 during a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on a draft environmental plan for the Caspian Sea. Implementation of the plan, however, will depend on the settlement of lingering territorial disputes concerning the Caspian Sea.
Turkmenistan's leader, Saparmurad Niyazov has advocated a Caspian summit that would address outstanding jurisdictional issues. The proposal has received the support of Russian acting President Vladimir Putin, but Azerbaijan and Iran have expressed skepticism about the utility of such a summit.
The debate over the Caspian's legal status, and the fate of the draft environmental convention, will have an impact not only on the oil and gas sector, but also on the regional fishing industry. The shallow northern waters of the Caspian Sea are home to three quarters of the world's sturgeon, the source of caviar.
"Gas and oil spills would destroy the sensitive marine habitats of the sturgeon" said Yuri Merziakov, head of the Caspian Sea dept. of Russia's foreign ministry.
Iran has echoed Kazakhstan's concerns about the environmental impact of Caspian Sea development. Iranian environmental official Shaaban Ali Nezami said that the Caspian, even without further oil- and gas-sector development, faces ecological catastrophe due to heavy pollution, overfishing and public indifference towards the environment.
"The petroleum product content in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan's waters is tragically high, exceeding the norm by as much as five times in some areas," Nezami said. "Plans to construct...pipelines on the seabed are not wisely founded because the Caspian Sea is in an earthquake prone area. The danger of damage to underwater pipelines by quakes are serious and the results will be catastrophic for the marine ecosystem and also for the coastal populations."
Ecological activists have been increasingly vocal in expressing their concern about offshore oil development in Kazakhstan. For example, the Atyrau Environmental Protection Agency maintains that OKIOC's drilling practices are causing increasing pollution in the Caspian Sea. Other local NGOs, including Green Salvation, the 'Green Women' environmental information agency and the 'Biosphere' ecological club, have supported the Atyrau NGO. They have worked jointly to accumulate data supporting their position, asserting that while OKIOC has taken steps to protect the environment, more must be done to reduce the risk associated with offshore drilling.
Outside of Kazakhstan, NGOs have been largely been ineffectual in promoting environmental safeguards. In some states, in particular Turkmenistan, authoritarian governmental practices have inhibited the formation of a viable third sector. But NGO activity also has been limited by a lack of cooperation. This has been primarily the result of poor communication and lack of access to accurate infomation.
Some international nongovernmental organizations have undertaken an initiative to build the capacity of NGOs in the environmental sphere. One such program, supervised by The Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR) and funded by USAID, held an organizational meeting in April 1999 that was attended by 52 NGOs. At the gathering, participants agreed to establish an e-mail network. The 3-year project ultimately aims to foster cooperation among NGOs, governments and transnational oil corporations in the formulation of regional environmental safety frameworks.
Daphne Biliouri is an independent consultant
and policy analyst based in the UK. She specializes on global
environmental issues and policy development in Europe and
Central Asia. She recently finished a lectureship at the dept.
of International Relations, American University in Kyrgyzstan.