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News Summary: Paydirt nears in Kazak superfield

ALMOST PAYDIRT: Crude production in Kazakhstan's mammoth Kashagan oilfield project is expected to begin sometime next year.

EUREKA: When surveyors confirmed in 2000 that Kazakhstan had a new supergiant oil reserve, the world's energy companies reacted with glee. It was the type of find that had no longer seemed possible. Nothing that big had been seen in four decades.

NOT SO FAST: Yet developing a remote offshore site half the size of Delaware that is blighted by weather ranging from blazing to glacial has proven difficult. The northern section of the landlocked Caspian Sea is extremely shallow compared to most offshore energy projects. That makes transporting heavy equipment a problem, as deep-hulled vessels can't be used. The area's fragile ecosystem is also the site of spawning grounds for endangered sturgeon, birthing habitat for the rare Caspian seal and migratory sites for numerous birds.