Quarterdeck Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 1996
(Cover shot by Greg Boland)

Azerbaijan, oil, and sustainable development in Azerbaijan

Gilbert T. Rowe

Ecocide of the Caspian Sea

The oceanography department's interest in the Caspian Sea began with a telephone call from a former A&M student, Mr. Joe Davis (Civil Engineering, '78). The time was just after the 1991 Soviet-Union disintegration into Russia, an assortment of commonwealth nations, and other newly independent states, including Azerbaijan. Davis was associated with a humanitarian group taking medical supplies to refugees, and in Azerbaijan he was constantly being asked about serious environmental threats to human health, fisheries, and coastal ecosystems.

Simultaneously, western oil companies' interests in the area began to accelerate because of known but untapped oil and gas deposits in the Caspian Sea region. Russell Putt (Oceanography, '75), now at Amoco and working in Houston, brought visiting senior scientists from Azerbaijan to tour the chemical analytical facilities in our department and the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) at Texas A&M.

Based on this growing wave of interest, I organized an effort we have come to call TAMERCS, or Texas A&M Education and Research on the Caspian Sea, an informal group of scientists from around the campus considering humanitarian efforts to assist Azerbaijan. The general objectives of TAMERCS are to share information about western technology as the Azeris move toward a free-market economy and rebuild needed infrastructure. So far, we have been most active in studying the environment. We want to assess the degree to which the Caspian is actually contaminated, and the effect such potential threats are having on human health and living resources.

The new Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is a small country the size of Maine, bounded by the brackish Caspian Sea, Russia, Iran, Georgia and Armenia. Border disputes with Armenia several hundred miles west of the capital, Baku, have been actively hostile since 1988-even before the two states became independent from Russia. Thankfully, a cease-fire has been in effect since 1994. The native language is similar to Turkish, as in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and most of the people also speak Russian, the language in which technical material has been published. Baku is a cosmopolitan city of over three million inhabitants. Roughly one person in four is said to be a refugee from the disputed territory in the mountains.

The importance of oil resources in Azerbaijan has long been recognized. In fact, production was initiated at an offshore facility locally known as "the oil rocks" decades earlier than in the Gulf of Mexico. Twelve companies have formed an international joint venture called the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) to produce a contiguous set of fields in the Caspian's center. Oil and gas reserves in the Caspian region could rival those of the Gulf of Mexico, which some petroleum geologists speculate are as large as those of the Middle East.

Baku's sister city in the United States is Houston, and Congressman Greg Laughlin (Texas A&M Class of '64) has visited Baku on several occasions. Unfortunately for the Azeris, external political forces plague relationships with the United States. According to a 1996 article in the Washington Times by G. Zarycky, Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act "inhibits governmental and private agencies from aiding or working with institutions or facilitiescontrolled by the Azerbaijani government," because of the still-unresolved conflict with Armenia.

The legacy of communism

Though rich in natural resources, Azerbaijan suffers from extensive environmental degradation attributed to the Soviet Union's oil industry and Baku's aging urban infrastructure. The horizon is dotted with wooden oil derricks left standing for decades in still-producing oil fields. Basic services such as water, power, and sewage are unpredictable at best.

The potential damage from waste oil is exacerbated by a sea level rise of more than 10 centimeters each year. This transgression causes extensive coastal flooding, land loss, and dispersal of toxic pollutants in senstitive regions.

Pollution from the oil industry is pervasive both in the Caspian Sea and on the Apsheron Peninusula surrounding Baku. The "produced waters" from oil wells are stored in open pits and emit toxic radon gas. Our research team has walked around some of these ponds and sampled mud and organisms living in their shallows. The extensive "dead zone" adjacent to the city of Sumgait, a center of the Soviet chemical industry, is our next target for investigation. (Dead zone map) Caspian Sea pollution, however, is thought to originate as much in the Volga River, which drains much of western Russia, as from oil production and natural oil seeps.

Sturgeon populations of the Caspian Sea have been a major source of caviar for the last century. Enormous sturgeon fish live in the Caspian Sea but need to return to its tributary rivers to deposit their eggs. Now that Azerbaijan's rivers are closed to sturgeon by hydroelectric dams, newly hatched larvae are bred in mariculture farms, raised in tanks to young adulthood, and released. Adults can grow to two and a half meters in length and weigh more than 50 kilograms.The fishery was strictly managed under the Soviets but is now threatened by poaching and pollutant stress. The industry relies heavily on fish hatcheries for new recruits into the natural stocks, due in large part to the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power. Furthermore, the Azeris lack a fishery management plan or the wherewithal to enforce it. The loss of the sturgeon fishery would have a significant economic impact on all five riperian countries.

My first involvement in Azerbaijan began with a visit to Baku in May 1993. I was accompanied by Dr. Norman Guinasso of the Department of Oceano-graphy and Professor Bill Batchelor of the College of Engineering. Following that trip, Amoco brought a second delegation of three Azeri scientists to Texas A&M late in 1993. In January 1994, Amoco gave us a grant to create a visiting lecture series in Baku covering subjects related to economic development, environmental remediation and management, and the oil industry.

Square one: How bad is it?

A first step in applied ecology is to accurately define the present state of the environment. Our database on environmental quality in Azerbaijan has been initiated with this important goal in mind. Graduate students John Pohlman (Oceanography) and Jim Naismith (Civil Engineering) have created a Geographic Information System (GIS) into which all the information we accumulate in the form of concentration measurements, photographs, and maps can be stored, displayed, and analyzed (Geographic Information Systems in action, another article in this issue).

Much of our work has been designed as hands-on demonstrations and comparisons with approaches already in use by local researchers and students. Such exchanges are an important component of our activities. For example, Professor John Bickham has been working with scientists at Azerbaijan's Institute of Physiology to describe the toxic effects of pollutants on young sturgeon and some terrestrial species common in the coastal zone (Ecotoxicology in Azerbaijan, another article in this issue).

The dead zone

I am interested in the basic ecology and oceanography of the Caspian Sea. Its two principal basins are quite deep-around 1,000 meters. In the meager literature on the deep basin fauna, I have noted that apparently nothing is captured in deep grab samples of the sediments. We cannot attribute this paucity of fauna to a lack of technology because the Soviets pioneered deep-sea grab sampling, in which a clamshell-like shovel bites into and carefully scoops up a defined area and volume of seafloor sediments and the living organisms contained in them.

This seemingly azoic, or lifeless, condition is intriguing. If it exists, what causes it? Low oxygen, lack of food supplies from the surface, or some other phenomenon yet to be identified?

Professor Abdul Kasumov, director of the Caspian Sea zoological station, has described large "dead areas" that include much of the inner continental shelf along the north side of the Apsheron Peninsula and all of Baku Harbor on the peninsula's south shore. Senior Research Associate Greg Boland and I collected sediment and benthic samples in the harbor of Baku and along a transect offshore, as well as some comparative samples at South Beach, a popular site west of the city. We wanted to compare our results with Kasumov's conclusions and confirm the presence of the dead zone in Baku harbor.

We took quantitative bottom samples to identify and count benthic organisms and we measured environmental parameters in the water column such as turbidity, temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. Vital collaborators in these studies were Professor Bob Presley, whose specialty is trace metals, and Dr. Terry Wade and his associates at GERG, who measured trace organic contaminants.

We validated Kasumov's conclusions. No doubt about it-the seafloor of Baku harbor is virtually dead. The high concentrations of total polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), derived from oil, were approximately 10 times the maximum found in the entire suite of United States status and trends data.* PAHs, along with a wide variety of complex but man-made hydrocarbon compounds, are known carcinogens.

Concentrations of trace metals in the samples we analyzed were similar to what we expected, with the exception of copper and zinc which were enriched by factors of ten and five respectively. Nickel was two to three times too high and barium may be two times too high. We suspect that human influence on the environment caused the abnormally high levels, but we need more information to confirm this.

Life at the seep: Chemical vents are a haven for organisms, and not just wildlife!

Numerous natural oil and gas seeps have drawn the attention of Norman Guinasso and Ian MacDonald at GERG, who have studied similar features on the continental slope of the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a coincidence that natural seeps occur in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caspian-both are characterized by extensive hydrocarbon deposits which motivated long histories of commercial offshore oil and gas production. Does the Caspian also contain communities of large tube worms, bivalve mussels, and clams similar to those that live around oil seeps in the gulf? We don't know yet.

In July 1995 we visited hot springs associated with an oil seep near the beach on the Apsheron Peninsula east of Baku (Station 1 on the map). On balmy summer weekends dozens of families from the city drive out to bathe in the ostensibly therapeutic, sulfidic waters. Older men and women bask complacently in the shallow pools, often lathering aching joints in the red or black muds that ooze out of the ground in pools near the beach. In a year or two, these springs may be underwater due to the rising sea level. We collected samples of the mud and future tests will show if the oil in them comes from natural seeps or contamination from past production.

What now? Working to save Azerbaijan's ecosystems

Our future work will be exciting. We have created a preliminary conceptual model of Caspian Sea ecosystems and living resources to be used as a "recipe" to define important elements of the GIS database. Our Azeri colleagues are preparing an exhaustive literature review on the Caspian Sea, including translations of all pertinent literature for inclusion in Caspian Sea archives. We established Internet connections between the Texas A&M and Baku TAMERCS offices to facilitate GIS data transfer. We initiated a series of intercalibration exercises to compare techniques now in use at the Azeri research institutes with those we use in our laboratories to measure chemical constituents-including trace quantities of exotic contaminants-and to measure the species composition and abundances of organisms coexisting with the toxic chemicals. The data we report here is an initial component of the calibration exercises.

The GIS hardware and software will be made available to Azeri institutions at the TAMERCS Baku office, as well as to participating oil companies. Personnel from the Texas A&M Mapping Center will train Azeri graduate students and professional environmental managers in the use of the GIS.

TAMERCS plans to assist in establishing analytical laboratories and a communications, technology-resource, and study center for our new-found colleagues and their students to continue these studies into the future. This will require additional financial support for graduate students, computer hardware, analytical equipment for our collaborators in Baku, and a small trailerable boat and motor.

Full-screen map of the Caspian Sea region

Pools of mud, water, and oil stand in an Azeri oil field near Baku. Derricks built under Soviet rule are still in use today. (Photo by John Bickham.)

Young sturgeon in a mariculture tank (Photo by Greg Boland.)

Young adult sturgeon (Photo by John Bickham.)

Adult sturgeon (Photo by John Bickham.)

Dead zones in Baku Harbor and on the Aspheron Peninsula

Graph of pollutants found in Baku harbor


Gilbert Rowe, the author of this article, labels a sediment sample from Baku Harbor. (Photo by John Bickham.)

Diagram of relationships between several elements in the Caspian Sea ecosystem

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Last updated January 31, 1997