Strike action halts construction of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline

TBILISI (Reuters) – A strike paralyzed building work yesterday on stretches of the ambitious Baku-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline that will link the Caspian and Mediterranean seas, a spokeswoman for project leader BP said. Workers demanding double wages downed tools on three Georgian sections of the pipeline, she said – halting work on a project designed to pump a million barrels of Caspian crude a day to the West, avoiding Black Sea shipping bottlenecks. But BP said the strike would not affect building schedules. «Local workers went on strike on the Rustavi, Marneuli and Akhaltsikhe sections,» said spokeswoman Tamila Chantladze. «(Workers in Akhaltsikhe) have returned to work, but the strikes are continuing in Rustavi and Marneuli,» she said, adding that construction on those two stretches was halted for a second day. The workers are employed by BP’s Franco-US contractor Spie Capag-Petrofac, Chantladze said. «Spie Capag-Petrofac is prepared to look at all the workers’ individual complaints, but without strikes,» she said. «Any pay rises will be decided on the basis of established procedures and individual workers’ qualifications.» She did not reveal how much the workers were being paid now. Construction work began in May 2003 on the 248-kilometer (154-mile) Georgian section of the pipeline. The strike coincided with remarks by a US envoy that political uncertainty in Georgia was unlikely to harm plans to develop the energy resources of the Caspian Sea. Mass protests recently toppled veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, sparking fears of delays in the construction of the pipeline. «In Georgia, despite a change in government, every political faction supports the east-west energy corridor. I think we are in very good shape in Georgia,» US President George W. Bush’s Caspian envoy Steven Mann told reporters during a visit to Turkey. Georgia, which has suffered a series of explosions since the ouster of Shevardnadze, elects a new president on January 4 and US-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili is tipped to win. The pipeline is already 40 percent complete and the first crude will flow through it in 2005. It will be 1,750 kilometers (1,085 miles) long and cost $2.95 billion. A natural gas pipeline is also being built by Norway’s Statoil and will follow the same route. Washington sees the Baku-Ceyhan line as a way to cut Russian and Iranian influence in the Caspian region. «Our strong desire to support Turkey to become an energy bridge and for Turkey to sell energy to Europe continues,» Mann said.