The Independent, It is a story of empire-building, intrigue, espionage, double-dealing and arm-twisting that Rudyard Kipling would have been proud to write.
Kipling popularised the phrase “The Great Game” to describe the secret battle to dominate central Asia fought between the British Empire, Russia and France.
But even he would have blanched at plans by the United States – with the help of the oil giant BP and British taxpayers – to establish a hegemony across an area stretching from the Russian borders to the Mediterranean Sea.
Inevitably, the need for oil is at the heart of the story. Two former Soviet states, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, between them have oil reserves three times the size of America's. The “game” is to find the safest way to get that black gold into the petrol tanks of American cars.
The US has been pushing for a new pipeline since Bill Clinton was in office. At first, companies were reluctant, but the rising price of oil, allied to threats in the Persian Gulf and the likelihood of huge reserves of oil and gas worth as much as $4 trillion under the Caspian, has made them increasingly bullish. The US Environment Department estimates that by 2010, the Caspian region could produce 3.7 million barrels per day. This could fill a large hole in world supplies as world oil demand is expected to grow from 76 million a day, in 2000, to 118.9 million by 2020.
By this time, the Middle Eastern members of OPEC would be looking to supply half of that need.
The geopolictical stakes are high – the pipeline would be able to pump as much as 4.2 million barrels per year, easing the US's reliance on the unstable Gulf states for oil.
The answer is the world's longest export pipeline, a 1,090-mile, 42-inch wide pipe snaking its way within a 500-metre corridor from the Caspian Sea port of Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, in Turkey, via some of the world's most unstable and conflict-ridden nations.
The project will cost up to $4 billion (