Turkey said that it plans on drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, raising tension in the region and drawing rebukes from the European Union and the United States.
The Eastern Mediterranean has emerged as a major source of natural gas in recent years, with multiple discoveries announced in several countries over the past decade. The first few discoveries came in Israeli waters in 2009 and 2010 – the Tamar and Leviathan fields. In 2011, the Aphrodite gas field was discovered in Cypriot waters. Noble Energy, a Houston-based company, was the main company in all three of those discoveries.
Italian oil giant Eni took things to a new level with its Zohr discovery in 2015, which was roughly twice as large as the Leviathan field. Eni fast-tracked development and brought it online at the end of 2017. A series of other smaller discoveries have also been reported in the region over the years.
The flow of gas has led to all sorts of hype and dreams. Egypt wants to become a regional and global gas player, involved in the production transport and export of natural gas. Security analysts have hoped that gas would bind the restive Middle East together, with pipelines intertwining Israel, Jordan and Egypt. The growing economic and trade relationship, and the regional interconnections, would tamp down conflict, the thinking went.
More far-fetched projects have been trumpeted as well. The EastMed pipeline has been floated as a silver bullet to multiple problems. The proposed project would link up several gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean and move gas to Greece and Italy.
The project had the feature of opening up large markets for export, adding a major source of supply for Europe while also reducing Russia’s leverage as a supplier to the European Union.
The only problem is that the project would be immensely expensive, technically difficult and politically fraught. The project is liked in certain European capitals and in Washington, but it has gained little traction.
In fact, much of the promise that natural gas could be the solution to geopolitical strife in the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean has turned out to be hollow. That is especially true when it comes to Turkey and Cyprus. If anything, gas has exacerbated the existing multi-decade conflict.
Last year, as Cyprus stepped up efforts to develop its gas reserves, Turkey sent warships to block Eni from drilling. Turkey claims that Northern Cyprus (represented by Turkish Cypriots) has the right to drill in the area. The conflict not only centers on the division of Cyprus and overlapping territorial claims, but it is also the latest point of contention between Turkey and Greece, and even Turkey and the European Union.
In other words, gas is the latest vehicle for longstanding fights over sovereignty. Instead of gas as a unifier, helping to tamp down conflict, gas is opening old wounds and leading to new conflicts.
The latest twist in this saga came in early May, when Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “we are starting drilling” in the region, according to Reuters. “We will conduct drilling in areas of Turkey’s continental shelf and we are starting our drilling work at points identified by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa,” Cavusoglu said in Northern Cyprus. After trying to deter international companies and Cyprus from drilling, Turkey is pressing forward with its own plans.
That was met with condemnations from both the U.S. and the EU, one of the few issues the two have agreed upon as of late.
“The United States is deeply concerned by Turkey’s announced intentions to begin offshore drilling operations in an area claimed by the Republic of Cyprus as its Exclusive Economic Zone,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said on Sunday.
It’s unclear what happens next. “[W]hat happens if it actually makes a hydrocarbon discovery? Turkey is clearly trying to create a fait accompli with potentially immense consequences,” Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO Charles Ellinas told New Europe. “Strong US and EU support, and support by other East Med and friendly countries, is very useful, but I do not believe it is enough to stop Turkey’s actions.”
When asked if Turkey might impact Cyprus’ deals with Eni, Total and ExxonMobil, Ellinas said: ”I do not think so. These companies are used to work in difficult environments and Turkey’s actions will not deter them from their plans unless, of course, they affect the safety of their staff and contractors as happened with the Turkish frigates stopping ENI’s drilling rig last year.”