Eastern Mediterranean is warming
Offshore natural gas explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the last few years have created challenges and opportunities for regional countries as well as interested outsiders. Proven and hoped-for natural resources in the region are changing geopolitical calculations dramatically. Turkey, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Lebanon and Egypt, along with Western companies, have already come face-to-face over potential resources.
Recently, Israel started to pump natural gas from the Tamar field, discovered in 2009 in cooperation with Noble Energy based in Houston. The discovery might bring self-sufficiency in energy to Israel, since the field holds an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas reserves. Another field, the Leviathan, discovered in 2010, holds at least twofold. These two large fields in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Israel, though partly challenged by Lebanon, are important findings for Israel. The gas flows from Egypt, currently supplying 40 percent of the Israeli gas demand, have been disrupted as a result of attacks on the pipelines since the eruption of the Arab Spring.
In addition to Israeli discoveries, the Republic of Cyprus has been drilling south of the island, where it earmarked 12 blocs for explorations in its self-declared EEZ, which is immediately challenged by Turkey and the Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Despite Turkey’s warnings and drilling by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation near the area, the Republic of Cyprus has announced that it found an estimated nine tcf natural gas in the Aphrodite field, again with Noble Energy. Extraction of this gas would help the Republic of Cyprus to save itself from the current financial crisis and boost its economy. Turkey, on the other hand, clearly showed its seriousness to the regional and international players by suspending its energy deals with Italian ENI because of the latter’s involvement in exploring Cyprus’ offshore.
Turkey would be a key player, because of its strategic position, especially in connection with the transportation of reserves to the international markets in Europe. Although Israel has other alternatives, such as building an underwater pipeline through Cyprus and Greece, and liquefaction of the natural gas, the most economically viable option is building a pipeline through Turkey. As Turkey is already connected to the European market via Greece, even the Republic of Cyprus would be wise to work with Turkey for transportation. The financial crises in Cyprus and Greece, as well as the high costs attached to building long underwater pipelines or liquefaction infrastructure leave Turkey as the more feasible option for Israel and others. The normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations after the apology of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, might pave the way for such considerations in the midterm, if not in the short term.
Eastern Mediterranean energy deals are also watched closely by the bigger international players. Russia has been trying to create a foothold in Cyprus by supporting the Greek Cypriots during their financial troubles and their exploration operations. It is important for Russia to keep its main exporter position for the European market. The EU, on the other hand, desperately needs to diversify its energy imports and dilute its dependency on Russia. Thus, potential resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are important to the EU. The U.S., through its international energy companies, is also present, and wishes to avoid a possible flare up in the region.
The stakes are high. It will be a test for regional actors to see whether they can cooperate when their interest overwhelmingly points toward cooperation or they fall in their hitherto promoted maximalist nationalistic positions.