Officials Inaugurate Caspian Sea Pipeline

Officials on Wednesday inaugurated the first section of an 1,100-mile U.S.-backed pipeline bringing Caspian Sea oil to Western markets.

The presidents from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Turkey were on hand for the ceremony at the Sangachal oil terminal (search), about 25 miles south of the Azeri capital, Baku, to open the taps for the first drops of oil to enter the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (search).

The pipeline from the Azeri capital to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan is seen as a significant move toward reducing the West's dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Most Caspian oil exports previously have moved through Russian pipelines.

The $3.2 billion project, with a capacity of 1 million barrels a day, is the first direct oil link between the landlocked Caspian, which is thought to contain the world's third largest oil and gas reserves, and the Mediterranean. The pipeline, built by a consortium led by the BP oil company, passes through Georgia en route to Turkey.

The pipeline "opens a new era in the Caspian Basin's development," President Bush said in a letter read by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Bush, whose administration is seeking to diversify energy sources, called the pipe a "monumental achievement."

"The United States has consistently supported (the pipeline) because we believe in the project's ability to bolster energy security, strengthen participating countries' energy diversity, enhance regional cooperation and expand international investment opportunities," the letter said.

All three countries on the route look to earn substantial revenue from the pipeline through transit fees and royalties.

"This pipeline first of all will help solve economic and social problems, but the role of the pipeline in strengthening peace and security in the region also is not small," Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev (search) said at the opening ceremony.

Azerbaijan is banking on the pipeline to raise its profile in the world and swing international support behind Baku in its dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which ethnic Armenian separatists took control of more than a decade ago. The conflict continues to simmer, undermining the region's security.

Pipeline officials said it would take up to a month and a half to fill the Azerbaijani section of the pipeline. The Georgian part will be ready after that, and then the Turkish stretch, which Turkish authorities have said should be filled by Aug. 15.

It will take approximately 10 million barrels of crude to fill the entire pipeline.