EU backs Israel-to-Italy pipeline to alter East Med energy chessboard

EU backs Israel-to-Italy pipeline to alter East Med energy chessboard

On April 3, the European Union and the governments of Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Israel pledged their support for the construction of the world’s longest undersea natural gas pipeline to transport Eastern Mediterranean gas to EU markets via Greece and Italy. Costing over $6 billion, the more than 2,000-kilometer mega-pipeline could transform the energy geopolitics of the region. The so-called Cross-Med pipeline would reduce the EU’s reliance on Turkey’s Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) as the major supply route for non-Russian natural gas.

While Ankara hoped TANAP would turn Turkey into the clearinghouse for Middle Eastern and Central Asian natural gas to reach Europe, the EU’s ongoing efforts to diversify its supply routes is changing the Eastern Mediterranean energy chessboard.

Although the Cross-Med pipeline has been dismissed by analysts as commercially unfeasible due to low gas prices, several contracts recently signed between the Greek Cypriot-administered Republic of Cyprus (ROC) and international energy companies suggest that the experts’ skepticism may be short-sighted. On April 5, two days after the Cross-Med summit, Qatar Petroleum and ExxonMobil signed an exploration and production-sharing contract with the ROC for Block 10 in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. In March, the Italian energy giant Eni announced that it had purchased a 50 percent stake in Cyprus’ Block 11 from the French energy major Total. Block 11 is adjacent to Egypt’s Shorouk concession in which Eni made the 2015 discovery of the massive Zohr natural gas field. The Eastern Mediterranean’s largest gas find, Egypt’s Zohr field, contains 850 billion cubic centimeters of natural gas, 50-60 percent of which may be recoverable. If the Zohr’s carbonate reservoir extends across the border between Egypt and Cyprus’ exclusive economic zones, then Cyprus could be sitting on a major natural gas find in Block 11.

The Cross-Med pipeline project is predicated upon the prospect that the Eastern Mediterranean will become one of the EU’s major energy suppliers. From a geological viewpoint, that prospect is not far-fetched. According to assessments conducted in 2010 by the United States Geological Survey, the Levant Basin, including Cyprus and Israel’s exclusive economic zones, along with Egypt’s Nile Delta and Mediterranean coast, potentially contain 10 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas. If this region is considered as a whole, the Egypt-Israel-Cyprus triangle could become one of the world’s top 10 natural gas producers. 

As the EU moves to eliminate coal as an energy source for power production, it may turn more to natural gas to prevent price and supply shocks, even while it continues advancing the use of cleaner renewable energy sources. In such circumstances, Eastern Mediterranean gas would be one of the EU’s most attractive supply options. For this reason, EU European Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, who participated in a recent summit in Tel Aviv, declared, “This is an ambitious project, which as the commission, we clearly support, as it will have a high value in terms of security of supply and diversification targets.” 

TANAP, the main pipeline of the Southern Gas Corridor extending from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Greece, Albania and Italy, is slated to transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the EU. With the inclusion of natural gas from the Kurdish region of Iraq and Israel (which would have to cross Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone), Ankara hoped that the Turkish market would become a chief organizing framework for the distribution of natural gas from the Caspian Basin and Middle East to Europe.  High-level officials from Israel and Turkey will soon engage in talks for the export of Israeli natural gas to Turkey. A win-win for both nations, Israeli exports to Turkey would contribute to TANAP becoming a strategic transit corridor for non-Russian natural gas to reach the EU.  

Still, with the Cross-Med pipeline officially on the table, the Eastern Mediterranean chessboard has changed. While Turkish-Israeli cooperation will likely be unaffected, Greek Cypriots may feel less incentivized to arrive at an equitable solution with the Turkish Cypriots for a reunited Cyprus.

*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow at the Energy Policy Research Center at Bilkent University in Ankara.