How Tensions Are Rising Over Mediterranean Gas Fields

How Turkey Is Spoiling Its Neighbors’ Big Gas Plans: QuickTake

The discovery over the last decade of major natural gas fields beneath the eastern Mediterranean has driven the region’s often-divided nations to work together to exploit the reserves. Cyprus, Israel and Egypt would enrich themselves while their exports through Greece and Italy would help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian gas. One catch: Turkey was left out of the picture, and with an active navy in the region, it’s sending signals it doesn’t intend to miss out.

1. What’s the latest conflict?

Tensions in the region flared in August after Turkey resumed exploration in an area of sea where its claims are contested by Cyprus, and began naval exercises in waters where Turkey and Greece both assert exclusive economic rights. Turkey also sent a seismic research vessel, the Oruc Reis, into waters claimed by Greece. German-mediated negotiations with Greece collapsed when the Athens government announced a maritime delimitation agreement with Egypt on Aug. 6 following a similar Turkey-Libya deal in December. French President Emmanuel Macron said on Aug. 12 that France was temporarily boosting its military presence in the area in reaction to Turkey’s steps.

How Tensions Are Rising Over Mediterranean Gas Fields

2. What’s at stake?

The biggest find in the Eastern Mediterranean is Egypt’s Zohr field, which holds as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas, or enough fuel to supply all of Europe for more than a year and a half. Zohr ranks among the world’s 20 largest gas fields. The Tamar and Leviathan fields off Israel’s coast hold 11 and 22 trillion cubic feet respectively, while the smaller Aphrodite field lies off Cyprus. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that recoverable gas in the Levant and Nile Delta basins were multiples of those amounts.

3. What’s the vision for cooperation?

In January 2019, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt together with neighbors Greece, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Italy founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. It’s an effort to establish a regional gas market and an exporting hub to Europe, which is eager to diversify its sourcing to guard against disruptions of supply from Russia. Cooperation is an imperative in part because pipelines are needed to connect producers to consumers. In January 2020, Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed an accord for the construction of a 1,900-kilometer (1,181-mile) undersea pipeline, called the EastMed, to connect gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean with European markets through Greece and Italy.

4. Why was Turkey left out?

Because the Republic of Cyprus was included, which Turkey doesn’t recognize. Cyprus was in effect partitioned in 1963 when fighting erupted between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south. It was fully divided in 1974 after Turkey captured the northern third of the island following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is recognized only by Turkey, which continues to base troops there. The government in the south is recognized internationally.

5. What have Turkey and Greece said?

Turkish officials oppose exploitation of gas resources by the Republic of Cyprus without an agreement on sharing proceeds with Turkish Cypriots. Beyond that, they say no energy project in the region has a chance to survive without Turkey’s participation. They argue that the shortest route for a gas pipeline from the region to Europe would be from Northern Cyprus through Turkey. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in January that “EastMed is not a threat to anyone,” while the EU is considering imposing sanctions against Turkey for acting unilaterally near Cyprus and Greece. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Turkey was open to solving disputes through dialog, while Greece and Cyprus have made similar statements.

6. What’s Turkey done?

Before its moves in August, Turkey has also used its warships to interfere with gas exploration and has asserted itself in a variety of instances. Turkish vessels in 2018 blocked a ship contracted by the Italian oil company Eni SpA from approaching a work site within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. And Turkey has deployed newly procured drilling ships to search for gas in the area. Over the past two years, a vessel called the Fatih was drilling in waters below Cyprus’s finger-like Karpas peninsula under an agreement with the Turkish Cypriots before moving to the Black Sea. A Turkish vessel called Barbaros has been searching for energy in waters southeast of the island. And another, the Yavuz, is plying an area off the southwestern corner of the island called block 7, over which both Turkey and Cyprus claim drilling rights. Cyprus has an agreement with Eni and France’s Total SA, as well as with Exxon Mobil Corp., to explore for oil and gas there.

How Tensions Are Rising Over Mediterranean Gas Fields

7. How do neighboring countries claim drilling rights?

Turkey doesn’t recognize Greece’s claim that its territorial waters start immediately south of the island of Kastellorizo, the most distant Greek outpost in the area. It argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations maintain an exclusive economic zone as far out as 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from their coast where they are entitled to fishing, mining and drilling rights. Where two zones intersect, as they do in the case of Turkey and Cyprus, the countries are obligated to come to a settlement. But Turkey hasn’t ratified the convention. It takes the position that island states such as Cyprus are only entitled to rights within their legal territorial waters, which go out just 12 nautical miles. Cyprus has petitioned the International Court of Justice to intervene, while Turkey has argued that the Greek Cypriot side should refrain from any exploration activity until after a settlement on the island.

8. What role do the maritime accords play?

The deal approved by Turkey and Libya in December demarcated an 18.6-nautical mile line that will form the maritime boundary separating their economic zones. Erdogan said the agreement would enable joint exploration activities, but Greece, Cyprus and Egypt see the deal as a Turkish bid for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece argues it ignores the rights of Greek islands to have exclusive economic zones and that it could affect the planned EastMed pipeline. Greek officials say their new maritime border agreement with Egypt is based on international law and overrides the Turkey-Libya deal.

The Reference Shelf

  • An article in Geopolitical Monitor examines the history of the conflict over Cyprus’s gas.
  • A story on French intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • A Bloomberg Opinion piece by Bobby Ghosh on Macron’s Mediterranean Gambit.
  • A Congressional Research Service report explores tensions in the region over energy resources.
  • QuickTakes on the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute and Russian gas.

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