Turkey resumes gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean | energy news

Nearly two years after Turkey halted offshore gas exploration in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean, a Turkish drillship has set off from the port of Mersin to search for gas in the region.

The Abdullhamid Han drilling ship set sail on Tuesday with the blessing of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the ship would operate 55 km (34.2 miles) off Turkey’s coast in an area within the country’s sovereign territory.

“The prospecting and drilling work that we are carrying out in the Mediterranean is within our sovereign territory. We do not need to receive permission or consent from anyone for this,” Erdogan said at a ceremony to launch the ship.

The eastern Mediterranean, with its significant natural gas potential, could become a focus of regional and wider disputes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a global energy crisis and sent importers scrambling for alternative sources of hydrocarbons.

Energy Minister Fatih Donmez had announced on July 26 that the 238-meter-long (781-foot) state-of-the-art drilling vessel would leave Turkey for an unspecified location.

A day before Donmez made the announcement, Cyprus’ energy minister Natasa Pilides said Europe’s push to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas had increased the strategic importance of its offshore finds.

“Europe is a good potential customer for Cypriot gas,” Pilides told Bloomberg. “The EU has confirmed that natural gas will remain a bridging fuel until 2049 as part of the green transition, so companies now have peace of mind that they can secure long-term contracts.”

Gas exploration has continued in Cypriot offshore blocks since gas fields were discovered in the early 2000s. Preliminary results from the latest appraisal drilling by a consortium of France’s Total and Italy’s ENI this week confirmed large natural gas deposits in block 6 of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus.

Pilides said that, as a small country, Cyprus does not need much natural gas for domestic purposes, leaving more for export.

But Turkey, which in 2019 footed a $40bn gas import bill and does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign state entitled to its own EEZ, has asserted its “sovereign right” to drill for energy reserves off the island. divided.

“Turkey has a long-term plan to be an energy hub in the region and to play an important role in the EU’s energy security,” Umud Shokri, Turkey’s senior foreign policy adviser, told Al Jazeera.

However, his ambitions have been repeatedly frustrated. In January 2019, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a multinational body based in Cairo, brought together governments including Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but excluded Turkey.

A year later, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel signed an agreement to build the 1,872-kilometre-long (1,163 mi) EastMed pipeline to transport Cypriot gas offshore to Greece and Italy. While partially traversing maritime areas claimed by Turkey would have been the quickest and cheapest route, the project stayed away from the areas.

“Turkey is being left out of the equation” in the eastern Mediterranean, Shokri said.

the cypriot question

Cyprus has long been disputed between Turks and Greek Cypriots. in 1974 a military coup in Cyprus aimed at uniting the island with mainland Greece led to a Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island and a lasting division.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus does not recognize the right of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004, to grant exploration rights to foreign companies without their consent.

Ankara sent Turkish oil and gas drillships to the waters off southern Cyprus in May 2019 as part of its Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) naval expansion doctrine.

In November 2019, a month after sending the Yavuz drilling vessel to exploration blocks that the Greek Cypriot authorities had awarded to ENI and Total, Turkey signed two memorandums of understanding with the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya, recognized by the UN, which expands Turkey’s maritime borders with the north. african country. The move paved the way for Greece to sign a similar agreement with Egypt in August 2020 to delimit their respective maritime jurisdictions.

Greece and Turkey came to the brink of a military confrontation in August and September 2020, after Turkey launched its Oruc Reis seismic survey ship accompanied by a small naval fleet to explore for oil and gas in areas that Greece claims as part of its territory. of its continental shelf and EEZ. but which Turkey disputes.

Tensions rose until Turkey halted offshore gas exploration in December 2020, shortly after the EU threatened economic sanctions and Joe Biden was elected US president.

On the Turkish Cypriot side of the divided city of Nicosia, Cavit Atalar, head of the Department of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering at Near East University, welcomed Abdullhamid Han’s departure.

“Turkey had to make a move to make sure our rights are respected,” he said.

He said the Cypriot dispute must be resolved before anyone can proceed with gas exploration off Cyprus.

“We cannot allow the Greeks to continue as if they are the owners of Cyprus, they are not.”

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On the other side of the wall dividing the capital, Theodoros Tsakiris, an energy expert at the University of Nicosia, expressed concern about the possibility of resuming exploration activities in disputed waters, but said they would not be “an inhibitor to development.” of regional reserves. ”.

“Cyprus will not stop the monetization of reserves in the EEZ,” the analyst told Al Jazeera.

At the same time, the Cypriot authorities are unlikely to honor Northern Cyprus’ request for a seat at the table when drilling rights are awarded.

“Asking for permission from a secessionist entity to negotiate with ENI or Total is equivalent to recognizing it as a legitimate interlocutor at the international level,” Tsakiris said.

Reactivation of the EastMed pipeline

The dispute is also a problem for the European Union. According to Tsakiris, Cypriot fields alone could offer Europe more than all the net gas exports from Azerbaijan, a country the bloc recently turned to to boost supplies.

“This is very significant because there is no domestic demand and Cyprus could essentially export 100 percent of what is discovered, as long as it is commercially viable,” the analyst said.

In addition to Cypriot fields, the EU is also hoping to boost imports from Israel, which is also involved in a maritime border dispute with neighboring Lebanon.

To transfer gas reserves from the eastern Mediterranean region, the EU has also been looking at reviving the €6bn ($6.1bn) EastMed pipeline, despite the fact that the US withdrew its support in January due to concerns about its technical and commercial capacity. viability.

“All the gas projects that had been stopped are now coming back,” Ana Maria Jaller-Makarewicz, an energy expert at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), told Al Jazeera, adding that energy companies are aggressively pushing to the EU.

“EastMed might be economically viable now because energy prices are so high, but it probably won’t be in the long run,” he added.

Meanwhile, he said cleaner, cheaper options are being ignored. “There is a lot of interest in building new power terminals, although we can more easily reduce demand,” said Jaller-Makarewicz, citing heat pumps as a way to achieve this goal.

While new energy solutions must be found, long-term infrastructure investment in a fractured region risks turning the eastern Mediterranean into the eye of a new geopolitical storm.

“One must ask, is it really worth it?” Jaller-Makarewicz said.

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