Oil Exploration: A Visit To ‘Island D,’ The Caspian Sea's Coming Black Gold Mine

Exploiting the oil reserves in the Caspian Sea has proven more difficult then expected. But after more than a decade of preparation, the Kashagan project – hailed as the largest oil project in the world – is finally inching its way towards completion.

The Caspian Sea as seen from space
The Caspian Sea as seen from space
Benjamin Quénelle

KASHAGAN -- Umberto Carrara spreads his arms. "In front of you is the largest oil project in the world!" Bundled up in orange, the director of this vast construction site has just landed in his helicopter on Island D, the heart of this enormous deposit of black gold in Kashagan.

Located in the Caspian Sea, in Kazakhstan's territorial waters, seven companies, including France's Total, have been working together here to exploit the potential reserves of at least 10 billion barrels of oil. "On land, things are 97% ready, offshore, 94% ready. The first drops of oil will be extracted by the end of 2012," Umberto Carrara says enthusiastically.

Italian from the tips of his elegant black shoes down to his espresso cup, this man from ENI, the Italian oil and gas giant, fights off the wind with passionate words and gestures. But his stressed face reveals the tensions behind the work that has built up after delay upon delay. Since its discovery in 2000, the Kashagan project has proven to be immensely complex, and now is more than seven years behind schedule.

The previous day, one of the boats transporting personnel ran aground in the shallow waters that surround the Island D. Along with major temperature variations, from -40 F to 104 F, the shallow water is one of the main obstacles to the completion of the project.

"You can see here the scale of the logistical difficulties," says Carrara. Around him some 6,500 oil workers buzz about busily. He points a finger towards one of the omnipresent gas-leak detectors, drawing attention to one of the special risks of this particular deposit: the high proportion of hydrogen sulfur in the waste water. And in the distance, there is another protection for another danger: dykes built to protect the island from floating ice plates that form in the winter.

Buzzing to life

A gigantic labyrinth that extends along 1.7 kilometers, Island D is not a platform but rather an artificial island, built out of local stones and protected underneath by a waterproof membrane out of concern for the environment. The project has begun its initialization phase, accompanied by requests for official authorizations, and the site – a vast assembly of orange metal – is waking up like a beehive. Cables are pulled in, tubes soldered, equipment unloaded, waste discarded.

In total, there are more than 80 companies collaborating on the project. "There are too many different actors," says an Italian sub-contractor. "For a while, that has been the source of delays. Deliveries are sometimes chaotic, the chain of command slows things down."

But one of the local managers, Timur Shakuov, says, "It's a magnificent project! Progressively, Kazakhs have taken over from foreigners in the higher positions." For the last hiring wave, Shakuov received 12,000 applications for 200 positions.

Once the 20 wells are in service, extracting oil from a depth of 4,200 meters, the workforce needs will decrease considerably. Average capacity will inch up to 370,000 barrels per day, then to 450,000 as recovery methods improve. These numbers, however, are far from the possibilities envisioned at the beginning of the project when projections were around 1.5 million barrels per day.

"With all of the complexities that have come together in this project, we have pushed our technologies to the limit," says Carrara. The first phase is now referred to as experimental.

Read the original article in French

Photo - eutrophication&hypoxia

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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