By Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem
The discovery of offshore natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean has Turkey, Israel and Cyprus scrambling in geopolitical competition over the resource. But according to some energy and political analysts, the gas discoveries and converging interests between the regional rivals could provide an opportunity for political reconciliation.
Of the estimated 2.8 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean — equivalent to the world’s annual total consumption of natural gas — only small portion would be slated for domestic demand in Israel and Cyprus.
To develop export pipelines to European markets, however, Israel and Cyprus are likely to run into Turkish political obstacles so long as a permanent political solution between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots remains elusive.
Sohbet Karbuz, director of hydrocarbons at the Observatoire Mediterraneen de l’Energie, told SETimes a pipeline from Cyprus to Greece through Crete would “definitely create political problems with Turkey’s [unclaimed] exclusive economic zones.”
The shortest and cheapest way to bring the gas to European markets is through Turkey, but Karbuz said that would depend on reunification talks in Cyprus. Turkey has not claimed its exclusive economic zone, which according to international law would give it jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resource extending 200 miles from its shore.
Turkey could therefore block any pipeline from Cyprus by claiming it passes through its exclusive economic zone and conduct its own exploration. However, Turkey could also trade this right for a solution to the Cyprus issue or an agreement that would benefit northern Cyprus in terms of money or gas supplies.
In response to Greek Cypriot gas drilling, Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus signed their own agreements for joint exploration. Turkey argues that the divided island’s resources should be shared by both communities, which would require a political solution on the island.
In May, Turkey threatened that it would forbid international companies bidding for oil and gas drilling projects in Greek Cyprus to participate in its own energy bids and has increased its military presence in the region to make a point.
According Karbuz, “Turkey’s endeavor is politics.” He said Turkey is focused on a political solution to the Cyprus issue and “its aim is not to find and produce gas and earn money.” He said that Turkey uses the gas issue as leverage to pressure the Greek Cypriots for a political solution between Turkish and Greek communities on the island.
Mehmet Kazancı, chairman of the Natural Gas Distributors Union Association, agreed that regional gas competition in the Eastern Mediterranean is largely a political issue for Turkey.
“It seems that Turkey has also rights [to claim] in this regard,” he told SETimes, adding that Greek Cyprus would not be able to transport its gas through the planned pipelines unless the Cyprus issue was solved.
On the other hand, Kazanci also stressed the gas discoveries could improve relations between Turkey and Israel and increase co-operation in the energy sector.
Peter Poptchev, Ambassador-at-large and Advisor to the Minister of Economy, Energy and Tourism of Bulgaria, told SETimes Eastern Mediterrain gas was important for Europe’s energy security. By “restructuring the interests” of Turkey, Israel and Cyprus, it could be a regional game-changer.
“I would say that the discoveries of natural gas provide an opportunity for a fresh look at the prospect of reinvigorating the Middle East peace process and hopefully successfully completing the intra-region talks in Cyprus,” he said.