Walking The LineEvery day Europe consumes vast amounts of fossil fuels. A huge new gas pipeline is being planned to ensure this continuous supply of hydrocarbons. Yet fossil fuels have a devastating effect on people and the climate. The Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline would be no exception. This is the story of those who share their lives with the pipeline.
Europe's dependence in numbers
Europe’s industries, economies and structures are shaped by fossil fuels. Powerful corporations, oil industry lobbyists and financiers work hard to ensure that this doesn’t change.
The lives of people, the stability of the climate and the ability to access energy all come second to the consumption of ever increasing amounts of fossil fuels.
The bad news, however, is that the EU and its member states are not acting on their own advice. Energy savings and renewable energy sources are being promoted, but the EU continues to prioritise fossil fuels, in particular the expansion of gas infrastructure.
The European Commission’s flagship energy project is a new 3,500 kilometre pipeline, starting from Azerbaijan: the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline. It will lock Europe into decades more of fossil fuel use.
The Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline
Currently our biggest suppliers of oil and gas are Russia, Norway, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Nigeria. But Europe knows that relationships can quickly change, as has happened in recent years with Russia.
Oil, gas and conflicts are interrelated. In its quest for more hydrocarbons, Europe is happy to work with governments that are extremely repressive. Several regimes that Europe supports are responsible for severe human rights violations, while others are highly corrupt. But because we need their energy we support these regimes with political backing and billions of euros. Europe spends about €400 billion on fossil fuel imports every year – that’s more than €1 billion a day.
Politicians in Europe seem to agree, in part thanks to the intense lobbying of groups like the European Azerbaijan Society. José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, dubbed the Euro Caspian Mega Pipeline “an energy avenue for the 21st century”. EU leaders today are also eager to push the project which they claim is crucial for the EU’s energy security.
We travelled along the route of this pipeline, to see where it will lead. How will it determine our energy future, and what will its impact be on people living along the route? As we walked the line we learnt the stories of those directly affected by its construction.
Our first stop is the place the gas is extracted from – Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
The European Games are not the first major event to be held in Baku, and they won’t be the last. A plethora of prestigious events (including Eurovision and Formula One) and high profile sponsorships underpin Azerbaijan's image of a proud, and modern nation.
Baku is a city under permanent construction. Billions of dollars of oil money have been spent building new roads, glass skyscrapers and impressive feats of modern architecture. The construction is chaotic but the buildings combine surprisingly well with the historical architecture of the city centre.
The glitter of the Games is not for everyone. We arrived in Baku airport together with Emma Hughes from Platform London, an outspoken critic of both the Azerbaijan regime and BP, the British oil company that has exploited Azerbaijan's fossil fuel resources over the last 20 years. She was detained and put on a plane back to London. Emma was the first of many unwelcome guests to the party – including journalists from the Guardian and campaigners from Amnesty International.
Publicly opposing president Aliyev and his government is very dangerous. There are currently 87 political prisoners in Azerbaijan – more than in Russia and Belarus combined – and the Baku regime imprisoned many high profile human rights defenders in the months running up to the European Games. On the night of the opening ceremony of the Games, many of them sat just kilometres away behind the walls and wire of Kurdexani prison.
Many international human rights groups have called on the Azeri authorities to release both of these prisoners of conscience, so far without success.
“It is the duty of every citizen who wants a more transparent and democratic country to reveal the corruption and abuses of those in power. I’m very proud of her,” she says while showing a necklace shaped to spell the name of her daughter.
Khadija was accused of inciting a former colleague to commit suicide, a charge which the colleague then withdrew, stating in an online testimony that the accusations were made under pressure. The prosecutors later added other false charges. Shortly after we met with Elmira her daughter was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Her real crime was her journalism, which exposed the corruption reaching all the way to Azerbaijan’s president and his family.
After more than eight months in pre-trial custody, Intigam Aliyev was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail on made-up charges of ‘tax evasion’, ‘abuse of authority’, ‘illegal entrepreneurship’, and ‘appropriation’ on April 22 2015.
High profile events such as the European Games also provide an opportunity for human rights activists. “European leaders should address the government on the human rights violations that happen here and make participation conditional to the release of political prisoners,” urges Necmin. “We are promoting European values, so we are counting on their support.”
More political prisoners
Everyone knew that Khadia and Intigam’s arrests were coming. Shortly before she was seized in Baku, Khadija was filmed at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, In the video Khadija encourages people to keep fighting for human rights. “If arrest is the price, it’s ok, it’s worth it,” she says. The film was released on the day Khadija was arrested. Intigam learned about the case against him while he was abroad but chose to return anyway. Both decided that running was not an option.
While the Azeri government tries to blind the world to reality, the work of both Khadija and Intigam reveals the true nature of the Azerbaijani regime – they have fearlessly documented the abuses of power, corruption, cronyism, lack of media freedom and human rights violations.
Other stories included how the president’s family secretly obtained a quasi-monopoly of the country’s mobile services, how his daughter became the owner of a privatised bank and how government officials and the president’s family built real estate empires in Dubai and the Czech Republic.
“I’m not chasing them,” Khadija insisted. “It’s just that, wherever I dig, their names pop out.”
In 2012, as Khadija was in the middle of a story about the interests profiting from the National Flag Square in Baku, the Aliyevs began a campaign of intimidation against her. The president called her an enemy of the state and she received stills from a video of her having sex, recorded with a hidden camera in Khadija’s bedroom. The letter stated that if she did not cease her activities the video would be published on the internet. When she refused to stop her work the video was duly posted.
On 1 September 2015 she was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. Her colleagues and friends at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project decided to continue her work through the Khadija Project.
Intigam brought more than 200 cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, including issues such as violations of property rights, freedom of expression, and the right to assembly.
Over 40 cases were related to the 2010 elections in which president Ilham Aliyev was re-elected for a third term. Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar, after his death in 2003. Together, father and son have ruled the country almost since its independence in 1993. Since then no elections have been recognised as ‘free and fair’ by the international community.
From prison, Intigam continues to work on cases, in spite of the authorities’ illegal seizure of all documents related to his ECHR cases and his deteriorating health situation
There are currently 87 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, activists of the NIDA civic movement and an opposition leader whose release has been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights.
Azerbaijan’s independent media have faced vicious attacks. Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 162nd (out of 180 countries) in its recently published 2015 Press Freedom Index. Journalist Rasim Aliyev was killed in 2015, and many writers and broadcasters have been thrown into jail or forced into exile.
Sanctioned protests are routinely broken up and a series of punitive legislative amendments have made it extremely difficult for civil society organisations to operate.
There is a human rights crisis in Azerbaijan and it is likely the situation will only get worse
The BP-Aliyev regime
Despite the deteriorating human rights situation, cooperation between BP and the Aliyev government has only intensified over the years. The Aliyevs depend upon BP to maintain the flow of oil revenues to the state and the personal finances of the ‘first family’, as well as helping bind Baku into strong alliances with the EU, the USA and the UK. BP was also the official partner of the European Games, but the support it gave was far more than just a sponsorship deal: the oil company helped deliver the Games, providing training and expertise.
Khadija was clear about BP’s responsibility for human rights in Azerbaijan: “BP is one of the reasons why the west is very hesitant about any changes in this country. The Aliyev regime is good for BP. It allows their operations and they can sort out issues with the regime. Political influence is part of the bargain. BP is blamed for bringing Aliyev senior to power but it's not just historic – the UK government is silent about problems with democracy in Azerbaijan. BP's interests are dictating the agenda."
We contacted BP to talk to them about their role in Azerbaijan but they said they didn’t have anyone available to comment on the situation.
According to Marlene Holzner, former spokesperson of the European Commission, that's not a problem. “By working closely with Azerbaijan on matters such as energy, we increase our chances of booking progress in other areas as well. The European Commission also raises human rights issues during official meetings”, she said in October 2013.
The Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline is estimated to cost $45 billion. Such a price tag means the pipeline is dependent on public loans and subsides. But the pipeline won’t only have a financial price, it also comes at a huge political cost as it will see Europe supporting yet another authoritarian regime in order to source fossil fuels.
As the work of Khadija, Intigam and many other political prisoners shows, political and economic power in Azerbaijan rests in the hands of a small elite around president Ilham Aliyev. Increased income flows in recent times, particularly via the oil industry, have not resulted in democratic change but have instead allowed the president to tighten his grip on the country and its citizens.
As Europe’s ties to Azerbaijan have strengthened, the human rights situation has become drastically worse.
Uzeyir Mammadli from Nida, a youth organisation that is prohibited by the government, told us that: “EU support for the regime has weakened civil society and the opposition in the country. The EU has economic and diplomatic tools to influence our government but refuses to use them.” Uzeyir has been locked up for one year after being arrested at a peaceful protest against the government.
At an overall cost of $45 billion, the pipeline will create a giant construction site with trucks and excavators ripping up farmland, thousands of villages, forests, deserts and the seabed of the Adriatic.
Building such a huge piece of infrastructure across so many countries is a complicated undertaking, and to make it more manageable the pipeline is split into different parts. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is the last part of the pipeline and will run from the Greek-Turkish border, through Albania, under the Adriatic Sea and break land in the small town of Melendugno in the region of Salento, the heel of Italy.
Alberto was born and raised on the farm. He is worried about the impact of the pipeline on tourism, fishing and agriculture, especially the cultivation of olive trees, which are among the main sources of income in the region. Throughout the last century the population of Salento dropped as people migrated to bigger cities. For several decades the younger generation, including Alberto, has been trying to build a future that allows them to stay in the place where they grew up and protect the beauty of the land.
“We were barely informed about the project. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline company, who are based in Switzerland, organised information sessions but it was clear there were a lot of uncertainties. Nobody could tell us about the environmental and health risks involved. A proper cost and benefit analysis was lacking.”
Alberto felt he had to act: “This concerns our future. As citizens we have to get involved, nobody will do it for us.”
One year after the TAP environmental impact assessment of TAP was approved in September 2014, the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline was being pushed forward by the Italian government and the European Commission. Despite this support the No TAP Committee discovered that no less than 58 preconditions for approval had not been fulfilled.
Detailed information about the project was hard to come by as the company is registered in the Canton of Zug, Switzerland, one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world – of course the pipeline won’t go anywhere near there. In a counter-environmental impact assessment the Committee highlighted omissions and demanded additional information and tests to address the seismic risks – the pipeline passes through one of the most active faults in Europe – and environmental impacts on the region.
But the Committee had more fundamental criticisms.
“We also question the kind of energy system that is being brought into being by the TAP and the impact it will have on the lives of people from here to Baku,” Alberto explains.
“More and more artists started to get involved, it took the protest to another level,” says Marco Santoro Verri, the bass player of La Rocha, a local folk-punk band. “But at the same time the company started playing radio spots and sponsoring huge public events such as music festivals to win round the public.”
“I felt we had to react, so I suggested organising our own No TAP festival,” says Treble, a reggae artist who lives in Melendugno. It was an instant success: “Over hundred artists registered to play for free and about 10,000 people came to party with us in August last year.”
Treble explains, “For me music is a tool which can be used to raise social issues. The No TAP festival was a very powerful tool to show the enormous popular resistance against this project.”
According to Potí: “The project will leave a permanent scar on our land. At the regional level, everybody is against it. The pipeline is imposed from above and lacks democratic approval. We’ve made our position very clear to the national authorities, to the European Commission and to the European Investment Bank, but so far they refuse to take our arguments into account or enter into dialogue.”
For Potí this campaign is not just about stopping the pipeline being built ‘in his own backyard’ – he’d be against it wherever the pipeline was laid.
“I’m not against Europe,” Potí concludes, “on the contrary, if Europe wants to secure its energy supply it doesn’t need more gas, it doesn’t need to make itself dependent on an authoritarian regime and it doesn’t need to destroy its own environmental wealth and risk the safety of its citizens. Europe should invest in a different decentralised energy model based on sustainable energy sources.”
A different energy model
Alberto is confident that communities in Salento are able to meet their own energy needs and provide a safer and more sustainable solution to Europe’s energy needs – one that doesn’t involve building destructive new pipelines.
“Regardless of the huge financial, environmental and social costs, a pipeline is also very vulnerable. It is thousands of kilometres long, and just one accident along the route affects everybody that depends on it. A network of small scale installations is much more resilient. If one installation is down, you can still depend on the others within your network.”
BP and other big energy companies have successfully lobbied EU institutions to support gas in favour of renewable energy since at least 2011. “We believe action should be taken to address climate change and there is a role for oil and gas,” a BP spokesperson said last year.
This narrative frames gas as a clean and reliable transition fuel for achieving a low carbon economy. This oil company narrative is one the European Commission has chosen to adopt. EU energy strategies which should be ending the EU’s gas dependency are putting new gas infrastructure centre stage.
Thus, the European Commission is overestimating gas demand and this is resulting in wrong investment decisions in favour of additional gas infrastructure. “A wrong analysis will lead to the wrong cure,” warns E3G in its study (pdf).
This means that billions of euros will be invested in redundant fossil fuel infrastructure that will generate over-capacity. Money invested in new pipelines can’t be invested in efficiency programmes or renewables. It will extend our dependency on fossil fuels even as demand is falling.
Moreover, using public money to provide guarantees and new forms of financing puts the burden of such decisions on poorer citizens both in Europe and beyond its borders.
“London is the UK’s economic engine but it is 100% reliant on energy from outside, and it’s costing us billions. We want to produce our energy locally and sustainably. The investments come from the community and they stay in the community,” says Agamemnon Otero who runs Repowering London, an organisation that is helping local communities to set up their own renewable energy projects.
In Hackney, one of the most deprived London boroughs, Repowering London has just finished its fourth community energy project. With the help of the residents it has put solar panels on the rooftops of every building of the Banister House estate, a social housing complex. Agamemnon shows us around.
Agamemnon explains: “It started small and slowly. But with Hackney Energy we finalised our fourth projects and we are helping to realise over twenty more projects that are being developed just in London as we speak. We have proven it works and there’s a real appetite for these projects among the people.”
Crucial to its success is the inclusion of residents in every step of the project, says Agamemnon: “Repowering is not a company that runs solar power panels on your rooftop. We want to put the people in charge. The residents are the owners of the cooperative. The revenues flow back to them and are reinvested in the community. If you want to get people involved, this is the only way to do it.”
Ann is one of the directors of the project but she’s been involved in community activities on the estate for a long time. For her, Hackney energy is about much more than energy. “There used to be a lot of problems around the estate including youth crime and even homicides,” she recalls. “Hackney Energy has helped to turn things around and it managed to involve youngsters in doing things for themselves. It allowed us to be proud of our community again.”
Aisha took part in a training on renewable energy and helped to promote the project among residents. It directly affected her. “The training helped me to get a job afterwards. It also made me more aware of how we use energy. Together with the solar panels, that helped us to reduce our energy bills.”
Energy security and the need to ‘keep the lights on’ have been the main arguments for importing more fossil fuels. That policy has failed more than one out of ten households in Europe and in the UK who already live in fuel poverty because they can’t pay their energy bills, regardless of how much is imported.
According to Ruth London: “We don’t need more energy, we need more affordable energy that isn’t controlled by big energy companies which set the price and make huge profits. A variety of measures are needed to tackle fuel poverty but more support for community energy projects can be one of them. It’s definitely more effective than building another pipeline.”
A different energy avenue
For a small amount of gas (2.5% of current EU consumption), Europe is tying itself to the authoritarian Azerbaijani regime. That additional energy won’t get to the people who need it, those living in energy poverty.
The Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline comes at a huge price. It’s a price that will be paid by Azeris fighting for transparency, democracy and human rights, values that Europe is supposed to promote. It will also be paid by people living along the pipeline route who risk losing their land and livelihoods. And it will be paid by all Europeans who are forced into a polluting energy system controlled by big energy companies.
The first priority of any energy strategy should be tackling Europe’s fossil fuel dependence, not building new pipelines. Political and financial focus should be on viable alternatives which diversify ownership, increase the share of renewables in the energy mix and allow us to generate our own renewable energy locally, rather than sucking energy across borders into European territory.
As of now, European decision-makers are wilfully taking us in the opposite direction, but it’s still not too late to choose a different energy future: one where we have clean, affordable energy controlled by people.
The Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline is no part of that future.