No. 3, 2010

Vladimir Igorev


Azerbaijans Oil Rocks: the unique experience of the Caspian shelf pioneers

As early as the mid-19th century, the Kara Dashlari ("Black Rocks") formation in the middle of the Caspian Sea was attracting the attention of geologists. The oily film on the surface of the water and the rocks themselves was a clear indication that crude could be found there. At the end of the 1940s, thanks to the discovery of a huge field in the Caspian, the region was given a new name: the Oil Rocks. Development of the area became a brilliant page in the history of the Caspian's oil industry.

The forerunners of Caspian oil

According to the historical record, small amounts of oil were being produced in the shallow waters of the Caspian Sea as early as the 1820s. Baku resident Kasym-Bek owned two oil wells in the Bay of Bibi-Heybat, located 20 and 30 m offshore at a depth of 0.5 m. Considerably later, at the end of the 19th century, Baku oilmen repeatedly tried to begin exploring for oil in the coastal zone off the Apsheron Peninsula; they were, however, unable to obtain permission from the authorities, since the regulations on mineral resources did not allow the exploration of marine areas. In addition, it was feared that drilling at sea could produce oil gushers that would kill off the fish population.

Responding to these fears, a mining engineer Witold Zglenytcki suggested at a meeting of a special commission in 1900 that offshore drilling could be performed with drilling rigs mounted on platforms. The rigs would have to have platforms rising at least 3.6 m above the sea level, so that the oil would gravitate onto barges. In addition, the project allowed for a special device that would channel oil into a spacious floating tank in case of a gusher. The conservatively inclined commission, however, decided not to approve these progressive ideas.

In 1905, an engineer Ivan Zakovenko requested permission to explore for oil on the sea floor, proposing to use an invention of his own: a floating pontoon caisson. However, his audacious project, several decades ahead of its time, was rejected by the Mining Committee, which cited the impossibility of verifying the engineer's calculations. Moreover, the government decided to follow a simpler path as early as 1900: to fill in part of the Bay of Bibi-Heybat (now Baku Bay), thereby obtaining around 330 ha of new oil-bearing land.

They actually began filling in the bay only in 1911, however, and by the time the oil industry was nationalized under the Soviet government in 1920, just around two-thirds of the designated sector had been filled in, and drilling on it had not yet commenced.

The Soviets continued filling in the bay, and the first oil was produced there in 1923. By 1925, the field named Ilyich Bay was producing around 10% of all the oil in the Baku area.

In the crucible of industrialization

By the mid-1930s, Artyom Island in the Caspian Sea was home to the first stationary offshore platform on steel piles. It was here that Russia's first slant well was drilled and the slant turbine drilling technique was developed. World War II interrupted the continuing development of the shelf. Only after the war was over did oilmen return to work on the Caspian Sea.

It should be noted that in 1940, the USSR produced around 31 million tons of oil, but only 19 in 1945. In March 1945, not long before the end of the war, the Decree of the USSR Council of People's Commissars On the State Plan for the Restoration and Development of the Economy in 1945 was adopted. It called in particular for a 9% increase in oil production by the end of the year, but production grew by only 6.5%. In February 1946, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, speaking at the pre-election meeting of voters in Moscow's Stalinsky electoral district, announced the new tasks of industrialization now facing the country:

"We must reach the point where our industry can produce up to 50 million tons of pig iron annually, up to 60 million tons of steel, up to 500 million tons of coal, and up to 60 million tons of oil. Only under these conditions can we consider our nation to be secure against anything that might befall it. This will take perhaps three Five-Year Plans, if not more."

In fact, oil production would more than triple by 1960. Ten years later, by 1955, the Soviet Union was already producing 70 million tons of oil; in 1960, it produced 147 million tons - almost eight times as much as in 1945, not three. In 1946, however, under the conditions of postwar devastation, the "task of three Five-Year Plans" seemed to be pushing the envelope. The oil industry had to find new reserves in order to increase production. The development of the Volga-Urals oil- and gas-bearing province (the so-called "second Baku") and the Timan-Pechora area (the "third Baku") proceeded at breakneck speed, and production was stepped up in the Baku and Grozny areas. In addition, oil producers were turning their attention to the Caspian Sea shelf.

Lavrenty Beria, Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers and one of the central figures in the history of political repression during the Stalin era, was an avid supporter of offshore production. Beria, the designated overseer of the Soviet Union's oil industry since 1941, held enormous power, helping him on the one hand to push offshore oil development forward, and to create ethical tensions and deprive oil producers of the right to make mistakes on the other.

The Kara Dashlari ("Black Rocks") formation, later to be called the Oil Rocks, had drawn the attention of geologists as early as the mid-1800s with its abundance of oil seepage, but the difficulty in gaining access to this remote sector, located more than 40 km to the east of the Apsheron Peninsula, would delay the development of the field for many years to come.

An expedition to the rock formation was organized on November 14, 1948. It included Nikolay Baybakov, the USSR minister for the oil industry; Sabit Orudzhev, the future minister of the USSR's gas industry (1972-1981); and geologist Agakurban Aliyev. The vessel Pobeda ("Victory") landed a construction gang on the Oil Rocks; they soon set to work erecting a drilling rig and a small barracks for the workers. Almost seven months later, on June 24, 1949, Mikhail Kaverochkin's drilling crew began boring a well, and on November 8 of that year it produced the Caspian's first gusher of offshore oil with a flow rate of more than 100 tons a day.

The Main Directorate for the Exploration and Development of Offshore Oil Fields under the USSR Ministry of the Oil Industry, abbreviated to Glavmorneft, was also established in 1949. Along with the Oil Rocks, which has been the main resource base for Soviet oil workers in Azerbaijan since the 1950s, Glavmorneft discovered a dozen or more fields in the Caspian.

Glavmorneft ceased to exist in 1954, however. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Beria was arrested and shot as an "agent of international imperialism" in the behind-the-scenes struggle for power. It was because of Beria's participation in developing offshore projects that "excessive" attention to the shelf was seen as an aberration, and a considerable amount of the industry's resources were redirected to the accelerated development of the recently discovered major oil fields in the Volga area: the Romashkinskoye, Tuimazinskyoe, and a number of other fields. The Oil Rocks were not, however, shoved entirely into the background, as they had already begun to prove their worth.

The "capital of the Soviet shelf"

It was decided in the 1950s to create a number of artificial islands in order to develop the Oil Rocks fields. At the beginning, several ships whose service lives were over (including the legendary Zoroaster, the world's first tanker, built to the order of Nobel Brothers in 1877) were sunk to serve as the foundations of the islands. The era of heroic Five-Year Plans had no regard for the relics of the past.

By 1951, the Oil Rocks was a field ready for production, equipped with all of the infrastructure needed at the time. Drilling platforms were erected, oil tanks installed, and docks with enclosures for ships were built. The first oil from the Oil Rocks was loaded into a tanker in February 1951.

In 1952, the systematic construction of trestle bridges connecting the artificial islands was begun. A number of Soviet factories constructed crane assemblies with diesel hammers used to drive piles into the sea floor especially for use on the Oil Rocks, along with a crane barge that could carry up to 100 tons of oil.

Many of the oilmen received government awards and medals for their pioneering achievements in developing the field. Sabit Orudzhev, Agakurban Aliyev, and Mikhail Kaverochkin in particular became Stalin Prize Laureates (First Class).

The USSR's higher leadership would also recognize the importance of the Oil Rocks. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev, Chairman of the USSR Government (who frequently lent a hand in the development of the Oil Rocks), visited the field. By order of the Soviet leader, areas were filled in to act as foundations for the construction of comfortable multi-story housing for the oilmen, replacing the cramped barracks they had been living in. Khrushchev also ordered that helicopters be used in the future to ferry workers out to the fields, and their rotation ceased to be dependent on weather conditions.

With time, the Oil Rocks had also acquired their own electrical power plant, hospitals, recreation facilities, bakery, and even a park. Ships brought hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sand and rocks from the nearby islands of Zhiloy and Urunos to the "capital of the Soviet shelf," as it was called. As a result, the area of the "oil town in the middle of the sea" grew to around 7 ha in the 1960s, with the length of the steel trestle bridges joining the man-made islands exceeding 200 km.

Over the last 60 years, the Oil Rocks fields have produced more than 170 million tons of oil and 15 billion m3 of associated natural gas. According to present-day estimates by geologists, the volume of recoverable reserves is as high as 30 million tons. More than 1 million tons of oil were produced on the Oil Rocks fields by their operator SOCAR in 2009.

The Oil Rocks have become a veritable testing ground for the development of progressive technologies; in particular, it was there that multibore drilling was first employed in the Soviet Union. Time has shown that offshore production on stationary platforms equipped with housing blocks and hardware modules, docks and helicopter pads, is more than justified economically. In the history of offshore production, the Oil Rocks will always be a unique offshore oil field with a full-fledged urban infrastructure - the only such field in the world.

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Oil of Russia, No. 3, 2010
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