The official opening of the Baku-Batum kerosene pipeline took place on 24 July 1907 in Tiflis, to great applause. An achievement on a par with the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia, at more than 885 km it was the longest pipeline in the world. But how did it come to be?

A chemist journeys to America

Pipeline transportation in the oil industry began in the mid-1860s. Until then, oil was transported in barrels, and then in cisterns. In 1863, Russian chemist and inventor Dmitry Mendeleyev, known for his Periodic Table, suggested the use of pipelines for transporting oil from the fields. In 1877, he put forward the idea of building pipelines over long distances.

That same year, 1877, Mendeleyev headed to the USA. He wanted to … learn the reason behind the flourishing oil business in America, to discover the obstacles that delay this in our country, and uncover what needs to be done to tackle this delay.

In his fundamental work Foundations of Chemistry (St Petersburg, 1895, 6th edition), translated into numerous languages, Mendeleyev noted: When an oil pipeline from Baku to the Black Sea is constructed in the South Caucasus (there are many of them in America, they deliver crude oil from Pennsylvania to the ocean coast, where oil is turned into kerosene and other products), Baku oil will without any doubt find a huge market.

The very first oil pipeline made from iron, 5 cm in diameter and 6km in length, was built in Pennsylvania, USA in 1865. Later, in the 20th century, the USA had 10,000 km of oil pipelines connecting the Pennsylvanian oil fields with refineries in Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and other cities. In addition, the country had four oil pipelines pumping oil to Atlantic ports for export. American oil pipelines were mainly located on the surface, but in some areas they were underground. In 1914, the USA had 14,000 km of pipelines, at which point Russia had only 1,278 km.

First pipelines

The first oil pipeline in imperial Russia – 9km in length, 3 inches in diameter and with a capacity of 80,000 poods (1,310 tonnes, as one pood is equivalent to 16.38 kg) – was built in Baku in 1878, from the Nobel Brothers’ fields in Balakhani to the Black City. The pipeline was designed by talented engineers Alexander Bari of Bari, Sytenko & Co. and Vladimir Shukhov. Shukhov put forward a number of principles, which are still applied to pipeline construction today.

The next year, in 1879, Shukhov and Bari received an order from the oil producer G.M. Lianozov & Sons to construct a similar oil pipeline of 11.5 versts (12.3 km as one verst is equivalent to 3,500 feet or 1.6 km).

This second Balakhani-Black City oil pipeline was constructed that year, and was better in quality, enhanced by the experience of the previous work. Subsequently, Bari, Sytenko & Co. received proposals from other Baku industrialists – Ivan Mirzoyev, Vasiliy Kokorev and Alexander Benkendorf. By 1884, Baku oilfields had five pipelines (three connecting Balakhani with the Black City, one connecting Balakhani to a refinery in Surakhani and one from the Surakhani plant to the Zikh headland) with a total throughput capacity of more than 200,000 poods of oil per day.

The construction of these first pipelines in Baku required great engineering skill. Shukhov noted in 1884 that, oil pipelines constructed in 1879 have operated without interruption so far, and their pipes, in spite of heavy working pressure, are not in need of repair.

Shukhov’s design was of great value in this regard, and went beyond the scope of the pipelines’ practical uses: he developed an innovative method for pumping heated oil residues to reduce their viscosity, which made the pumping much easier.

Rail leads the way

The idea to build the Baku-Batum pipeline emerged in 1883, right after the opening of the South Caucasus railway and establishment of direct communication along the Caspian Sea and Volga River. An American engineer, Herbert Tweddle, was the first to make an attempt at construction of a Caspian-Black Sea pipeline. In 1877-78, he and Konstantin Bodisko, a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Finance, prepared four options for a unique project to establish the Caspian-Black Sea oil pipelines partnership. The main goal was to construct pipelines from oilfields to the ports of the Caspian, Black and Azov seas.

Pipeline expert I. Arkhipov commented: In this case, Batum will have its own ‘Black city’, like in Baku. He calculated it would be possible to save up to 10 million roubles (almost 200,000 AZN) by transferring the oil refining process from the place of production to the place of sale.

In November 1886, a large group of industrialists from Baku (about 50 people, including such prominent figures as Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, Musa Naghiyev, Emanuel Nobel, Alexander Benkendorf, Shamsi Asadullayev and others) asked the minister of state properties for prompt permission to construct their own Trans-Caucasian pipeline. However, it wasn’t until 1893 that the Cabinet of Ministers adopted the decision to proceed, with the proviso that work should be done in conjunction with Bari’s company.

Famous engineer Shukhov made additional observations in his notebook: On 9 February 1893, the proposed oil pipeline became a kerosene pipeline. The same day, Bari and I visited Petersburg to negotiate this issue. The government itself is interested. Therefore it will be a long-lasting project, and high cost is unlikely. If it does approve it, it will not be ready for at least three years.

It was no surprise to Shukhov that events panned out exactly as he had forecast.

For and against

Mendeleyev, who was seriously interested in the development of the Baku oil industry (the scientist visited Baku several times), was upset when he learned that some business leaders did not support construction of the Caspian-Black Sea pipeline.

Opponents of the pipeline’s construction had, in their opinion, quite solid arguments. For instance, members of the Baku Stock Exchange Committee were convinced that: The oil pipeline would not improve our chances in competition with the American oil industry in foreign markets and, moreover, it would condemn us to fall under the strikes of the Americans.

Then there were the industrialists, who zealously supported the idea of pipeline construction, including Alphonse Rothschild, Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, Ivan Ilimov and S. Baghirov. Alphonse Rothschild stood security for the project to the tune of one million roubles in 4% domestic bonds, at the Petersburg branch of the Lyon loan association. He also financed Shukhov’s work on project design, Kaspiy newspaper reported (No. 155, 1888). The financier wrote to St Petersburg: I have all grounds to hope that the work we would like to realise will bring an income on the capital invested and will promote the industrial and commercial development of the country.

One of Baku’s most respected oil industrialists, Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, gave his backing to the proposed pipeline in a speech at the Baku branch of the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS) on 11 January 1886. In his report entitled How to Get out of the Oil Industry Crisis, Taghiyev outlined a clear plan to export kerosene from Baku to Batum via pipeline. The topical report was printed and circulated among all the IRTS members and oil industrialists. Later in the year, as a counter to the opponents of pipeline construction, Taghiyev wrote a letter to the governor of the Caucasus, Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Dondukov-Korsakov, about the urgent necessity to build a Caspian-Black Sea main pipeline. Upon Taghiyev’s initiative, local entrepreneurs led by Aghabala Quliyev set up a joint-stock company to fund the construction.

Risks on the railway line

On 23 May 1896, the State Council of Russia adopted a decision to construct the pipeline along the route of the Trans-Caucasian railway. It instructed the engineering council of the Ministry of Railways to lead the design and construction. Professor Nikolay Shchukin was in charge of the development, aided by engineer L. Wartenburg. They had both visited the USA, as instructed by the railways minister, to learn about pipeline construction.

In Russia, they decided to start building the kerosene pipeline with the section from Mikhaylovo (renamed Khashuri in 1917) to Batum, as this was the most difficult part of the route for railway cisterns. The pipeline was to have a throughput capacity of 980,000 tonnes in 300 days of operation per year. The internal diameter of the pipeline was agreed in accordance with the average density of kerosene, 820 kg/m³, and recommended velocity, 1.5 m/sec.

This was the first construction of such a long kerosene pipeline along a railway bed. Extended transportation of kerosene, especially by rail, increased the potential for spills and evaporation, and health and safety risks. The risks were greater in inhabited areas, when cisterns full of oil products were in close proximity to passenger carriages. Considering the fire risks, Nikolay Shchukin (who did all the hydraulic calculations for the pipeline) issued tough requirements for the quality of the pipes and their connectors: their outside diameter could be increased just by 1.5%, internal by 1%, with no more than 2 mm in deviation from circularity.

Full steam ahead

By decision of the imperial government, pipes were to be delivered from Russian plants in Mariupol, Yekaterinoslav and Sosnovitsy (a station on the Warsaw-Vienna railway). The length was to be no less than 4.6 metres, with triangular threads at the end of the pipes. Such threads ensured maximum impermeability of the pipe connectors, an idea adopted from the pipeline plant in Pittsburgh, USA.

The pipeline project was widely discussed: meetings involved mechanical engineers and experts in hydrodynamics, as well as invited specialists, such as railways engineer G. Merchnik, author of a book on the motion of kerosene and oil in pipes.

Finally, in September 1896, preparatory work for the construction of the Baku-Batum pipeline began. Installation markers were laid along the railway bed and bridges, along with locations of boiler and pumping stations. In total, almost 43 km of pipes were installed by February 1899, and 144 km by 22 June 1899. Of these, 51 km were underground and 93 km on the surface.

American company Worthington from Brooklyn supplied the steam-powered piston pumps. Two working and one reserve pump were installed at each stage of the Mikhaylovo-Batum kerosene pipeline. In order to prevent major kerosene leaks in the event of an accident, reverse flow valves were installed every 2-4 km along the pipeline; an automatic device switched the pumps off when pressure in the pipeline decreased to 15%.

As the Baku oil industry grew rapidly, so did demand for kerosene abroad. By the turn of the century, Russia, mainly Azerbaijan, was supplying 70 per cent of France’s kerosene, 97 per cent of Egypt’s and 50 per cent of England’s. On 12 July 1901 Tsar Nicholas II signed a decision on the final completion of the Baku-Batum kerosene pipeline.

So, on 30 December 1904, the second, 140-km sector of the pipeline from Agh-Tala (21km east of Tiflis) to Mikhaylovo was opened. The third and most eastern sector of the kerosene pipeline, 514 km in length from the Black City in Baku to Agh-Tala, was opened on 1 June 1906. Finally, on 21 July 1907, the unique Baku-Batum kerosene pipeline with 16 pumping stations and maximum capacity of 800,000 tonnes per year, constructed along the Trans-Caucasian railway, was fully put into operation.

The first main pipeline from Baku to Batum, at more than 885 km the longest pipeline in the world at that time, had taken ten years to build. Its official opening took place on 24 July 1907 in Tiflis.

Batum transformed

According to contemporary sources, when it became a part of the Russian Empire in August 1878, Batum was a typical Turkish settlement with about 2,000 people. It had narrow passageways instead of streets, where it was impossible for two carriages to pass.

However, following the development of the Baku oil industry, Batum acquired the features of a classic European city. Trade and steamship offices and various foreign agencies set up on the seafront. As English writer Michael Brooks figuratively noted, Batum would have stayed a kingdom of traders if it hadn’t been for Baku oil. In addition to bringing industry and transportation, Baku oil was the spark that lit many fires. After 1936, Batum was renamed Batumi and Tiflis became Tbilisi.

A changing pipeline future

The revolution in 1917 affected the development of the Baku oil business. To the credit of the Bolsheviks and despite the forecasts of Western specialists, they restored the destroyed oilfields and made fundamental changes to production technology, including the introduction of subsurface pumps.

The Baku-Batum pipeline started operating again in May 1921, and Baku oil again reached Europe: oil was the only commodity for which the young Soviet state could obtain hard currency.

In 1925, the USSR’s State Commission decided to refit the kerosene pipeline as an oil pipeline, in order to start oil refining in Batum. Back in 1917, 254,000 tonnes of oil had been transported through the pipeline as a test, so the plan was feasible.

By 1928, oil exports from the Soviet Union were four times greater than exports from imperial Russia in 1913.

Electrification of the pumping system led to a spike in oil production: in 1941, Baku was producing 23.5 million tonnes of oil, 71.4% of all oil production in the USSR.

The Baku-Batumi pipeline worked successfully until 1943, when pumping was stopped and the pipeline dismantled as Nazi Germany’s forces attacked the North Caucasus. The specialists who dismantled the pipeline were surprised at the pipes’ durability and the skill involved in construction.

The pipes were taken east to be used in construction there. A hastily built pipeline between the Volga and Urals supplied crude oil from the fields in Kuybyshev (Samara) to refineries and plants in Sverdlovsk, Nizhnyy Tagil, Chelyabinsk and Perm, which were working for the front.

The Caspian-Black Sea direction again became a major oil export route when the Baku-Supsa pipeline opened in 1999. While the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline now pumps the bulk of Azerbaijan’s oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the Baku-Supsa, or Caspian-Black Sea route, remains an important export option for Azerbaijan.

About the author: Mir-Yusif Mir-Babayev is a doctor of chemistry and professor at Azerbaijan Technical University.