Energy security: The great game of gas enters the eastern Mediterranean

Energy security: The great game of gas enters the eastern Mediterranean

The first out of three analyses on the eastern Mediterranean

The eastern Mediterranean is the new frontier of hydrocarbons. The discovery of immense deposits of gas off the coasts of the countries that overlook this marine area has aroused interests of both regional and international powers aiming at exploiting the benefits deriving from this market. The Leviathan and the Tamar, located off the coast of Israel, Zohr, in the waters facing Egypt, and Aphrodite, discovered in the sea of ​​Cyprus, show that eastern Mediterranean is potentially a strategic important area, in terms of exploration of natural gas, Nonetheless, there are many obstacles that hinder effective cooperation in exploiting the potential energy resources of the region in a peaceful and constructive way.

The old and historical rivalry between Greece and Turkey, exacerbated by the Cyprus problem, is joined by political, nationalist and economic issues: the unsolved problem of maritime borders and the sovereignty claimed on the continental platforms that fuel the conflict in the region.

Tension off the Cypriot coast

The recent diplomatic incident, involving the Saipem 12000 platform owned by ENI, off the Cypriot coast, and a unit of the Turkish navy is symptomatic of the rivalry. Saipem 12000 was directed to Block 3 of the Cypriot Economic Exclusive Zone to carry out the planned drilling activities authorized by the Government of Cyprus, but in an area disputed with Turkey who does not recognize Nicosia’s sovereignty. On 9 February the vessel was intercepted by military ships in Ankara and was blocked about 30 miles from the point of destination. On 22 February, after two weeks of sensitive tension, Eni announced to abandon drilling in the area (in which it already has 6 concessions), while awaiting a possible resolution of the problem through diplomatic channels and with the possible mediation of the EU, moving Saipem 12000 off the coast of Morocco.

The clash between Cyprus and Turkey in this area of ​​the Mediterranean is linked to the presence in it of ​​rich deposits, on which, according to the statements of the Turkish Foreign Minister, they have “inalienable rights, as on all natural resources present in the region, also the Turkish Cypriots”. Block 3, where the ENI ship was headed, is located in the Nicosia EEZ, recognized by the European Union and other countries, but challenged by Turkey, which considers Cyprus’s claims on those territorial waters illegitimate. According to the Turkish President Erdogan, “explorations in that part of the sea are a threat to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus and Turkey”, as reported to journalists during their recent visit to Italy. Ankara’s decision to define the disputed marine area as an “area for military training”, indicates Turkey’s willingness to enter into the issue of exploitation of energy resources, risking to exacerbate the tension.

Confirming its interest in gas deposits in Cypriot waters, Ankara announced the purchase of the Deepsea Metro II, a marine drilling vessel currently docked in Istanbul. Turkey aspires to Cypriot gas for energy diversification: currently imports cover almost all of its gas needs (from Russia 55%, from Iran 16%, from Azerbaijan 12%, from Nigeria 3% ). The gas of the Mediterranean Sea would entail a drastic reduction in dependence and therefore a lower economic disbursement. This will go along with the primary position acquired as a transit country for oil and gas resources from the Caspian and Central Asia to the European markets, to which the new TANAP and Turkish Stream projects.

The EU for its part aims to exploit the Cypriot deposits, whose gas could be channeled into the East Med, one of the pipeline projects that make up the Southern Energy Corridor. The pipeline, which should begin construction in 2021, should transport the gas from the Israeli and Cypriot fields to Greece and Italy, and from there to the rest of Europe; its implementation, excluding Turkey from its path, would limit its aspirations as an energy hub, with the consequence of exacerbating tensions in relations between Ankara and the countries involved in the project. Moscow, is also interested in this geostrategic area as the Cypriot gas would be far cheaper than the Russian one, resulting in a negative prospect for its exports to Turkey but above all towards the EU countries.

Game-changing discoveries in eastern Mediterranean

The current political and economic situation in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean is in constant ferment: the discovery of Zohr will make it possible to change the Egyptian energy strategy, guaranteeing the country self-sufficiency and transforming it from an importer to a future exporter of gas. In particular, the economic policy aims to exploit the regasers present on its shores, so as to enter with force in the ever expanding LNG market.

The discovery of Leviathan, should allow Israel to export about 7 billion cubic meters of gas per year, while ensuring enough to satisfy their needs for decades. Recently, the hard struggle between Israel and Lebanon around the exploitation of Block 9, one of the areas in which the stretch of sea that touches the shores of Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel has been divided, and on which both States claim sovereignty, has been added to the other conflicts of this “Energy War” in the Mediterranean. The agreement with Cyprus, Greece and Italy for the realization of the East Med, would allow to expand the export areas reaching friendly and more stable markets like the European ones.

Turkey, in addition to accelerating exploration and drilling activities in the Black Sea and the dispute over the Mediterranean deposits, has expanded its gas storage capacity to 4 billion cubic meters with the creation of the underground storage facility at Lake Tuz, with the possibility of an increase of up to 11 billion cubic meters by 2023, thanks to new floating regasification units.

From this scenario, Italy could reap huge economic benefits. The establishment of a southern corridor that cuts off Turkey would strengthen the position of the Mediterranean coasting Member States, often referred to as the weak link in the EU. The TAP and the East Med for the Italian Government play a strategic role, not only to reformulate the gas import sources, but above all because their realization would consolidate the ambitious aspiration to transform Italy into a gas hub for Europe. For the Italian economy the two gas pipelines could in fact mean new infrastructures and therefore employment and the enhancement of those already in operation of the Snam gas network. Italy’s position on the energy board of the Mediterranean should also be strengthened, as it has been involved for many years with ENI, author of the discovery of the giant Zohr field in Egyptian waters, and recent protagonist of the diplomatic incident in the Cypriot waters. Turning Italy into the energy hub of the Mediterranean is a project that is certainly feasible, if supported by a coherent and well-amalgamated internal and European political strategy.

Antonciro Cozzi

Assistant professor and lecturer at University La Sapienza of Rome


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