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Pipeline Plan to Bypass Bosporus Has Doubters

Last March, the leaders of Russia, Bulgaria and Greece signed an agreement to build a $1 billion pipeline to bypass the Bosporus and carry Russian and Central Asian oil directly to the Mediterranean at the Greek port of Alexandroupolis. But as VOA's Barry Wood reports, not everyone is convinced the pipeline will be built.

The Bosporus Strait that slices through Istanbul and separates Europe from Asia serves as a vital passage for oil tankers sailing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And for 10 years, Ed Chow says he has heard talk of a pipeline to avoid it. The energy analyst says there is an economic reason why such a bypass has not yet been built. "It is, of course, much cheaper to ship oil by tanker through the Bosporus today, and will continue to be, than to invest in a $1 billion or $1 billion plus pipeline system," he says.

Chow explains that situation puts oil companies that would use the bypass pipeline at a cost disadvantage.

"If the Russian companies use the pipeline, does that mean that western companies that have oil in the Black Sea, like BP, Exxon, or Chevron, are going to get a free ride from the Russians by shipping their oil through the Bosporus at a lower cost?"

Chow says a bypass is likely to be built only when western oil companies sign on to the project. But in the Greek port of Alexandroupolis, the economic benefits promised by the planned pipeline from Bulgaria are eagerly awaited. George Alexandris is the mayor of Alexandroupolis. "We think it is a very good project for Alexandroupolis, for our country, and for Greeceā€¦it is the first time we've had to do such a big project."

Greek businessman Vasilios Charovas envisions an investment boom in northern Greece after the pipeline's scheduled completion in 2010. "For sure. This is an alternative solution for the transportation for all the containers coming from the Black Sea to Europe or from the Russian side to enter the Mediterranean area."

Albania's prime minister, Sali Berisha, is counting on the construction of a second Balkan pipeline, from Bulgaria to Albania. The deep water Albanian port of Vlore can handle bigger tankers than Alexandroupolis. And it is closer to western markets. "(But) To reach Italy, it (Vlore) is 200 kilometers shorter. This is the truth."

Mr. Berisha is looking for international assistance and is courting Kazakhstan and other oil exporters in the Caspian Basin. "We have very good relations with Central Asia. We're working with them for the source (of oil)."

If there is to be a winner in the Balkans pipeline race, it is likely to be the one that gains the support of major oil companies.