ATHENS, Greece (June 13) -- As the Gulf of Mexico spill continues, the damage is becoming ever more apparent. The catastrophe has cast a direct threat on plant and animal life, fragile coastlines and communities that have long made their living from the sea.
But as oil-soaked birds, turtles and mammals wash up on America's deep South, it is not just the locals there who are scared: Bulgarians now are balking at a $1.21 billion pipeline plan to bring Russian crude oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean.
The decision is not final. A study assessing the project's environmental impact along the country's southern Black Sea shores -- a popular tourist location set as the starting point for the pipeline project -- will determine Sofia's ultimate stance.
But Prime Minister Boiko Borisov isn't taking any chances.
Last Friday and after chairing a heated meeting of his cabinet council, Borisov summoned the European Union's top envoys to Sofia, spelling out the reasons for Bulgaria's desired pipeline pullout.
"We all saw what happened to the Gulf of Mexico," the prime minister said. "I explained how stormy the sea is [here], how narrow the bay is and what efforts would be required for a tanker to enter it on a daily basis," he told reporters after his meeting with the envoys.
The pipeline project was proposed in 1994 as a means of bringing Caspian crude oil to Europe's eastern frontiers, bypassing the busy Bosporous Strait, in Turkey.
The scheme envisioned Russian tankers shipping the oil across the Black Sea to a terminal hub in Bulgaria's southeast region of Burgas. From there, the pipeline would run through Bulgaria, extending another 75 miles into Greece, flushing an initial annual capacity of 35 million tons of Russian oil into European Union market.
With Europe already reliant on Russia for a third of its total oil needs and over 40 percent of its natural gas demands, the project would have strengthened the Kremlin's growing energy hold on the Continent.
Indeed, so bent was Russia in sealing the deal, that after years of construction delays and amid growing resistance by Bulgaria, Russian leader Vladimir Putin went to Sofia in 2008 to arm-twist its former Soviet satellite into signing the scheme, along with a parallel gas plan designed to undercut a rival project backed by the United States.
The deal required last-minute negotiations, amid tough bargaining by Bulgaria and wariness about Russia's clout. The Bulgarian cabinet sanctioned the agreement at an extraordinary meeting only a few hours before it was signed in the presence of a stern-staring Putin.
Despite the agreement, environmental concerns grew. Locals in Burgas voted against the pipeline in a set of referendums in 2008. Debate also swelled over the project's viability as oil prices soared and the launch of another pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean raised an obvious point: There may not be enough oil to fill both lines.
Now, the disaster caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has given fresh impetus to Bulgaria's bid to reduce its huge energy reliance on its ex-Soviet master, Russia.
Borisov, the centre-right government leader, put it in couched diplomatic language: "For now, we see the project not profitable. We have promised our voters to preserve nature."
Russian media have scoffed at Sofia's designs, but the Kremlin has yet to comment and cash-strapped Greece is scrambling to keep the pipeline dream alive.