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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

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Decisive Spring? How Ukraine Plans To Beat Back Putin's Coming Offensive

The next months will be decisive in the war between Moscow and Kyiv. From the forests of Polesia to Chernihiv and the Black Sea, Ukraine is looking to protect the areas that may soon be the theater of Moscow's announced offensive. Will this be the last Russian Spring?

Photo of three ​Ukrainian soldiers in trenches near Bakhmut, Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers in trenches near Bakhmut, Ukraine

Anna Akage

Ukrainian forces are digging new fortifications and preparing battle plans along the entire frontline as spring, and a probable new Russian advance, nears.

But this may be the last spring for occupying Russian forces.

"Spring and early summer will be decisive in the war. If the great Russian offensive planned for this time fails, it will be the downfall of Russia and Putin," said Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence.

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Skinitysky added that Ukraine believes Russia is planning a new offensive in the spring or early summer. The Institute for the Study of War thinks that such an offensive is more likely to come from the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk than from Belarus, as some have feared.

Still, the possibility of an attack by Belarus should not be dismissed entirely — all the more so because, in recent weeks, a flurry of MiG fighter jet activity in Belarusian airspace has prompted a number of air raid alarms throughout Ukraine.

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