DECEMBER 9, 2022
Palestine Opinion Israel Opinion

Opinion: Pipeline v genocide: How Turkiye can legally block oil exports to Israel

Opinion: Pipeline v genocide: How Turkiye can legally block oil exports to Israel

by Suat Delgen

Israel receives 40 percent of its oil through the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a critical energy route running from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkiye to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and onward, via tanker, to Israeli ports. 

The pipeline primarily transports oil from Azerbaijan’s Azeri–Chirag–Deepwater Gunashli (ACG) field and condensate from the Shah Deniz field. British Petroleum (BP) operates the ACG field on behalf of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), a consortium of international oil companies.

Another consortium, including BP, SOCAR, MOL, Equinor, TPAO, Eni, TotalEnergies, ITOCHU, INPEX, ExxonMobil, and ONGC Videsh, operates the BTC pipeline and markets the oil globally. On 10 May, BP announced this consortium’s involvement in the pipeline’s management.

Way back in 1999, a Transit State Agreement and an Intergovernmental Agreement were signed between the consortium and Turkiye, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, ratified by the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and officially came into effect on 10 September 2000.

Pressure to half the oil flow to Israel 

On 2 May, in the face of growing domestic pressure to sever ties with Israel over its brutal war on Gaza, Turkiye announced a complete suspension of all import and export transactions to the occupation state until uninterrupted humanitarian aid was allowed into Gaza. 

But what about the oil? With so many other states and global multinationals involved, can and has Turkiye stopped the oil being transported from Ceyhan to Israel?

Geopolitical importance of the BTC Pipeline 

The BTC pipeline emerged from the geopolitical shifts that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As newly independent states in the Caspian region, particularly Azerbaijan, sought to develop their vast oil and gas reserves, they sought to export these resources to western markets without relying on Russian transit routes. Washington explicitly backed the BTC pipeline to reduce Moscow’s influence and create an alternative export route for Caspian energy.

For its part, Turkiye viewed the BTC project as a strategic opportunity to boost its significance as a key energy corridor. Despite initial doubts about the pipeline’s feasibility, political commitment from the US, Turkiye, and regional states, along with investment from major international oil companies like BP, gradually propelled the project forward. 

This collaboration led to the creation of the BTC pipeline, marking a major shift in the region’s energy dynamics and geopolitics. 

Today, the pipeline is a crucial route connecting the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and can shift 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd). According to recent data from the State Statistical Committee of Azerbaijan, the volume of oil transported through the BTC pipeline increased by 1.6 percent in 2023, reaching 30.2 million tons. 

Operated by BP, the BTC pipeline is the primary conduit for oil exports from the Azeri, Chirag, and Gunashli oil fields. Last year, Azerbaijan’s total oil transportation amounted to 39.7 million tons, with the pipeline accounting for 76 percent of this volume. 

The pipeline also serves as a transit route for oil from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, with transit oil volumes rising from 5.1 million tons in 2022 to 5.2 million tons in 2023. Given the significant share of Kazakh and Azerbaijani oil in Israel’s crude oil supply, the BTC pipeline is pivotal in facilitating this energy trade. 

Bloomberg report from October 2023 highlights Tel Aviv’s heavy reliance on this pipeline for its oil supply, from which it received approximately 220,000 bpd of oil since mid-May 2023. Kazakhstan was the largest source, providing 92,500 bpd, followed by Azerbaijan with 44,000 bpd. 

Data from the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan showed that Azerbaijan exported around 1,021,917 tons of crude oil and products to Israel in the first three months of 2024 – a value of $621 million. These figures underscore the critical role of the BTC pipeline in maintaining Israel’s energy security and the potential impact of any disruption to this supply route.

Legal constraints on halting oil flow

Despite Israel’s dependence on oil from the Port of Ceyhan, Turkiye lacks the authority to stop the oil flow except under force majeure conditions, according to the agreement signed with the BP-led consortium. The “Host Government Agreement” (HGA) and the “Intergovernmental Agreement” (IGA) that underpin the BTC Pipeline Project legally bind Ankara to ensure uninterrupted oil flow.

These agreements contain provisions that commit signatory states, including Turkiye, to obligations beyond typical international treaty law. Specifically, the agreements make signatory states unconditionally liable for any construction or oil transport delays, irrespective of the cause.

This gives the international consortium a privileged legal position over national states and requires states to relinquish some sovereign powers, such as legislation and adjudication rights. Thus, even if Turkiye wanted to suspend oil flow to Israel for political reasons, the strict liability clauses and other provisions in the BTC agreements would likely prevent it legally.

Thus, Turkiye is contractually obligated to ensure uninterrupted oil flow or face legal consequences, even for foreign policy reasons. While the BTC pipeline’s strategic importance justifies accepting restrictive terms, the agreements reflect an imbalance favoring corporate interests over state interests.

Potential legal justifications using ICJ measures

However, it is worth noting that South Africa’s proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last December – alleging its actions in Gaza constitute genocide – may have an impact on multiple business and state legal arrangements everywhere.

Officially known as “Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v Israel),” the ICJ has already issued several provisional measures that Israel must undertake to prevent further harm to civilians while the case is being adjudicated.

The ICJ measures are legally binding, and Israel has thus far largely ignored the court’s demands.

It is, therefore, possible for Turkiye to use these ICJ provisional measures as a legal justification to prevent tankers from transporting oil to Israel until a ceasefire in Gaza is achieved. 

Ankara could make the legal argument that, in line with the ICJ measures, the oil transported from Ceyhan is being used to continue military operations in Gaza and that, seeking to avoid complicity in a crime against humanity and assisting in implementing ICJ decisions, Turkiye cannot permit the use of its ports for this purpose. 

Such a declaration by Turkiye could exert significant pressure on Israel and place the oil consortium on notice that genocide does trump business-as-usual. 

While the complex and multifaceted nature of diplomatic and economic ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv make a complete severance of relations unlikely, Turkiye may now hold in its hand a unique legal opportunity to call the shots on oil supply to the occupation state.

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