Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean area grow as Turkey and Greece are ready to exploit the region’s vast gas reserves

At SVI we reflect that traditional confrontation on oil and gas reserves has to be considered in the light of climate change risk and decarbonization trend of world economies. The awareness of such topics is still very low but geopolitics will need to be revisited under the new light of systemic climate change risk, particularly if investors’ money will stop flowing to unsustainable projects. Moreover, the risk of deepwater drilling in a closed sea needs to be seriously taken into consideration. Below a report on what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea.

Greece and Egypt agreed on new maritime boundaries, hours after Turkey extended the operation of Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel in the southwest of Cyprus until 1st September, and said it will hold firing exercises off the coast of Iskenderun, northeast of Cyprus, until 2nd September.

Under their treaty, Athens and Cairo are now allowed to seek maximum benefit from the resources available in an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), including hydrocarbon resources (oil and gas reserves) in the Eastern Mediterranean area.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament another bill will extend Greece’s coastal zone in the Ionian Sea from six (about 11km) to 12 nautical miles (22km) under international maritime conventions.

What is this urgency all about? In February 2018, an Italian oil company found a huge gas field right off the coast of Cyprus, part of the region’s vast gas deposit estimated as big as 3,5 trillion m3, enough potential energy the US for a decade. Therefore, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean rise as several actors forge new alliances to secure energy rights of an area rich with unclaimed hydrocarbon resources.

Ankara and Athens, both NATO allies, claim rights over these maritime hydrocarbon reserves. This is why they both reached agreements with strategic partners in the Mediterranean area: Greece agreed upon new maritime boundaries with Italy on Wednesday 19th August, while a bilateral deal between Turkey and the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya was signed in November 2019 carving up a large portion of Eastern Mediterranean between them allowing Turkey access to areas in the region where large hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered.

Reporters say that Athens has the backing of Europe, and it finds itself in a position of legal strength to demand that Turkey agrees to have talks on the basis of international maritime law. On the other hand, it is very unlikely that Turkey will come to (legal) terms with European Mediterranean states, as it considers their pacts to be illegal. As the dispute widened, France said on Wednesday it was joining military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

That of Cyprus is an explosive matter of contention between Turkey and Greece, and the sticking point triggering all the threats and agreements. The island gained independence from Britain in 1960. In 1974, after a bloody conflict, the island was divided following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup. Turkey recognises the Turkish-populated north of Cyprus (Turkish Republic Northern Cyprus) as a separate state, which is not recognised by other countries and the UN, which recognise the southern part of the island, the Republic of Cyprus.  As France joined military exercises with Italy, Greece, and Cyprus, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said that French military aircraft in Cyprus violated treaties regarding the control and administration of the island after its independence, while dangerously encouraging Greece and Cyprus to further escalate tensions in the region.

Turkey and Greece are eager to claim their territorial rights to put their hands on one of the biggest energy reserves of the region. Normally, these territorial rights are defined by the 1985 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allocating up to 12 nautical miles (22km) from any nation’ shores as its territorial waters, and up to 200 nautical miles (398km) as its EEZ. Anything that a sovereign nation finds in or under the ocean out to this distance is its own. However, Turkey did not sign the Convention, and it has its own theory to define its territorial waters and EEZ, the continental shelf theory.

The theory states that a country’s landmass extends underwater to the very edge of the continental shelf. Using this theory, Turkey refuses that islands can have EEZ up to 200 nautical miles. Therefore, any island’s influence is only up to 12 nautical miles. Turkey has used this theory together with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to allocate themselves block for drillings in the Eastern Mediterranean area. However, several of these blocks are off the Greek islands of Crete and Karpathos sparkling condemnations among the international community.

In January 2019, Turkey was not invited for the set-up of the East Med Gas Forum, an international organisation led by Energy ministers of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon to export Israeli and Cypriot gas from a 1,900km undersea pipeline, East Med Pipeline, to EU markets. The pipeline project, if implemented, would be the lengthiest undersea pipeline in the world. Whether it will be implemented and completed or not, such agreements show that there is a strong cooperation network between different Mediterranean partners, which aims at cutting out Turkey and its go-it-alone attitude.

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