The “Global Spiral” of Caspian Environmental Politics


The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the Caspian Basin holds more than 48 billion barrels of oil and more than 292 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, the sea itself is home to over 400 wildlife species native to Caspian waters and has remained the largest producer—over 90 percent—of the world’s sturgeon and caviar outputs.

However, this abundance of resources and their economically developing properties have come with a price in the form of severe contamination. Russia, the largest superpower in the region, is also the region’s largest contributor to pollution, with the second biggest contributor being Azerbaijan. Furthermore, some activist groups such as Greenpeace have went even further, labeling Russia as the world’s worst oil polluter, claiming that its extraction and refinement activities have expanded past its own homeland and the Caspian Sea, having caused environmental damage throughout the Arctic Ocean. Russia is undoubtedly the dominant geopolitical player in both landmass and charisma in the Caspian Region and its ambitions for energy extraction are unmatched compared to the other regional states. However, while Russian extraction and refinement of oil and natural gas outpaces the other littoral Caspian nations, it has also damaged relations with those states in regards to energy and pollution.

Russia’s pollutant contributions in the Caspian Sea come in the form of wastewater from coastal industrialization and massive amounts of sewage waste directed into the Volga River. This river, which is native to Russia, is the most significant river responsible for supplying the sea’s water supply, making it the greatest contributing pollutant source. To put it into perspective, pollution from Azerbaijan comes in the form of oil by-products, waste, and spills. The impact of Azerbaijan’s energy pollution has become so great that the Caspian Environmental Information Center considers the Apsheron Peninsula—which includes the Capital city of Baku—and the waters that surround it to be the most ecologically devastated geographical area in the world. This title is specifically awarded to the Azeri peninsula due to the severe air, soil, and water pollution from oil extraction, refinement, and transportation of oil resources. Moreover, this severe pollution is exacerbated by Russia’s contributions, which as an upstream nation is also responsible for the destruction of the Apsheron Peninsula.

The ratification of the Tehran Convention by all littoral nations was based upon four protocols: biodiversity conservation; preventing land-based sources of pollution; preparedness, response and cooperation in combating oil pollution incidents; and producing environmental impact assessments in a trans-boundary context. However, as described above, despite the geostrategic significance of the Caspian Sea’s resources, we observe that geopolitics can hinder attempts to manage the pollution severely infecting the waters. For example, in 2013 Iran threatened to sue oil giant British Petroleum (BP) for allegedly discharging waste directly into the Caspian Sea and for not following the Tehran Convention covenants. These accusations were aimed at Azerbaijan in reality, which permits BP to operate the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli oil field and Sha Deniz natural gas field off of the nation’s coast. Furthermore, Iran claimed that due to these flawed practices there have been severe economic, health, and environmental damages, mainly from contaminated water decreasing fisheries and poisoning soil and groundwater. In the late 1990s BP also bought a 50 percent stake in the Russian TNK (Tyumenskaya Neftyanaya Kompaniya) oil company, to form the oil giant known as TNK-BP. To go even further, remember that BP was also responsible for a catastrophe in the US—the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil-rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The common link of giant oil ambitions and extraction is resulting in environmental and economic impacts that prove the relevance of the “Global Spiral” theory and the increased importance of protecting the world’s environment.

“The Global Spiral” theory describes the effects increasing populations and consumption rates of resources hold against the availability and abundance of those respective resources. Utilizing this spiral model and applying it specifically to the nations of the Caspian Region, we can conclude that when the populations of the Caspian states continue to expand (in both population size and industry), each nation will unilaterally attempt to secure and exploit the various natural resources found both on and underneath the Caspian Sea. This “resource race” has already escalated inter-state tensions, with the potential end-result being inter-state conflict as the other nations respond to unilateral actions with similar measures to best secure and exploit resources for themselves. While this is a typical model for energy conflicts, pipeline politics, and/or resource wars throughout the globe, I do not think the means have met the ends in the Caspian scenario. This is because as the race for resources continues to escalate in the Caspian Region the impact of severely damaging pollution and new shifting geopolitical dynamics will destabilize energy and resource security overall.   The Global Spiral also determines that the strain on those resources and the resulting pollution from their exploitation will become so great that preventative measures put in place to regulate availability and pollution will become uncontrollable – hence, the term the “Global Spiral” and its ability to lead to global catastrophe.

The question that needs to be asked now is that if each of the five Caspian nations can barely enforce or follow an endorsed inter-state agreement, does the international community have a role to intervene in the sovereign affairs of states in order to secure energy resources and ensure that any agreements and standards are honored? International interventions would only fuel Russian suspicions, however, and could aggravate inter-state relations between all regional players. Russia as the leading superpower in the region holds both the obligation and the capacity to live up to the agreed-upon standards outlined in the Tehran Convention. International cooperation is a fundamental necessity for ensuring that the Caspian states do not escalate inter-state tensions into inter-state conflicts that have global cascade effects. However, future strategies for preventing a “Global Spiral” in the Caspian region will only be accomplished by improving relations between radical regimes, recalcitrant presidents, and divisive autocrats. This is no easy task when each believes the best strategy is likely extracting the resources provided to the nation for economic advancement, rather than focusing on the collective responsibility of environmental protection and economic limitation.