Boomtown On The Caspian Sea

There's a full bar most every night at Finnegan's Pub, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Threlkeld. However, Finnegan's is not located in Dublin or Greenwich Village. It's is in downtown Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

The bar talk here is all about oil and money - mostly money.

"One of the only places you can get rich," said Don Churchman. "You can't get rich in America anymore, so we're here."

Americans, British, and Russians have invaded Baku to cash in the black gold in in the Caspian Sea, maybe a third as much oil and natural gas as in all the Persian Gulf.

They discovered the oil and gas burning in the ground a thousand years ago. Graceful plazas and parks that dot the city are the result of Baku's first big oil boom a century ago. Then, most of the oil and money went west. Later, it went north to the Soviet Union.

Now Azerbaijan is independent. While most of the old Soviet on-shore fields are played out, a couple of dozen Western oil companies -- as well as the Russians -- are betting billions of dollars on the Caspian's off-shore fields in hopes of making trillions.

Baku has become a classic boomtown.

"There's a lot vibration in the air," says Charlie Schroeder, an ex-wildcatter from New Orleans who runs a string of restaurants here.

He figures his business is less of a gamble than the oil business.

"They're takin' a big chance, exploratory work it's never a guarantee until you punch the hole in the ground. You never know whether you're going to hit it or not. And it's big bucks," says Schroeder.

A few miles offshore, Kelly Wilson is running a rig that's drilling three miles into the earth in search of oil, something he has been doing for 40 years -- all over the world.

The last Caspian well Wilson drilled cost 16 million dollars and came up dry. However, he knows the oil is somewhere close by.

"There's definitely a major, major amount of oil in this area," says Wilson.

The Caspian Sea isn't really a sea...it's a kind of great big lake and it's landlocked. The problem isn't so much getting the oil out of the Caspian Sea as getting the Caspian Sea oil out to the rest of the world.

The oil could be piped West to the Black Sea, but it would have to run through the Caucasus Mountains, a hotbed of political unrest. In addition, the Turks don't want to risk an oil spill fouling up Istanbul.

Instead, the oil could be piped through Eastern Turkey, but that's full of restive Kurdish separatists. The easiest and cheapest way is to pipe it South through Iran to the Persian Gulf. But America and Iran aren't getting along.

Meanwhile, Baku's ordinary folks -- who are barely able to make ends meet -- can't wait for the oil companie and the statesmen to sort things out. They are hoping that some of the oil money will trickle down to them.

Fifty or sixty years from now, when this latest Baku oil boom goes bust -- as it will -- maybe the average Azeris will have something a little more to show for it.

Reported by Richard Threlkeld
©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved

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