By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay*
As Turkey recently announced a major natural gas discovery in the Black Sea on Friday, how this will translate into reality is being widely discussed.
According to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the discovery of 320 billion cubic meters (11.3 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas in Turkey’s exclusive economic zone will reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy supplies, especially from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran — a factor that constantly increases the country’s current account deficit.
Last year, Turkey’s energy imports cost the country $41 billion, while it consumed 45 billion cubic meters of gas in the same period.
Mehmet Ogutcu, head of the Bosphorus Energy Club and a former diplomat, told Arab News that a “98 percent import dependency and $12 billion annual gas import bill creates a challenge to Turkey’s economy and national security.”
The country is also conducting exploratory drilling for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, that could hold about 122 trillion cubic feet of gas by some estimates, but these moves have enraged regional actors over maritime rights and further strained Turkey-EU relations.
Turkey plans to extract and make this gas available by 2023 — when the country will hold its parliamentary and presidential elections.
But, some experts have voiced their suspicions over this goal, and whether this reserve is likely to meet Turkey’s energy needs, claiming that the initial production process will require six years at minimum.
Some commentators also doubt the plan’s viability, as several members of the government have made similar announcements in the last two decades.
According to Ogutcu, the reserve estimate needs to be independently verified.
“The 2023 goal seems to be too optimistic as the Black Sea has tough geological and climate conditions for exploration and production. Plus, the average period from discovery to market is around 7-8 years in the gas industry,” he said.
Getting gas to the public is also believed to require additional financial resources reaching to billions of dollars in infrastructure.
Ogutcu thinks that investor appetite is currently low, over the gas glut in international markets, low demand and correlating prices.
Another point of contention is that the plan could shorten the terms of Turkey’s contracts with Iran and Russia for energy supplies that will end in 2023 and 2026 respectively.
Aydin Sezer, an expert on geopolitics and energy, said it was not technically possible to announce a reserve through a single drilling.
The country’s drilling ship Fatih began work on July 20. Sezer believes it ought to take four to six months to be technically suitable.
“The site of the discovery in the western Black Sea — now renamed the Sakarya Gas Field — expands 250 square kilometers, and at least 8 to 10 drillings should have been conducted in this area in order to announce a realistic amount of reserves. The real reserves can be determined in two years at least and could be extracted in 7 to 10 years,” Sezer told Arab News, adding that the announced reserves could not be taken as commercially viable at this point.
According to Sezer, the reserves cannot be extracted completely, and even if they were would only meet the country’s energy needs for six years.
On the other hand, as the gas found is 3,500 meters deep, reaching and extracting natural gas beyond 500 meters will require US companies that are specialized in deep water extraction technology.
Madalina Vicari, an independent expert on energy geopolitics, thinks the gas discovery is important for the country’s energy security, but not a game changer in the sense of covering Turkey’s gas import needs.
“The discovery is in ultra-deep waters, and ultra-deep water drillings bear significant challenges, technical and economic alike, as they require special engineering projects, and intensive capital investments,” she told Arab News.
In this regard, for Vicari, it is yet to be seen how much gas is recoverable, and when exactly the gas will flow into the Turkish market.
“Given the challenges of the project, it would likely take at least a few years until the gas reaches consumers. The 2023 timeline is overly optimistic. It remains to be seen to what extent the Sakarya field will reduce Turkey’s gas imports,” she said.
Vicari also thinks that Turkey’s energy contracts with Russia may turn into shorter term contracts along with significant price bargains, while the new gas discovery is also a challenge for the Turkstream pipeline.
“And Russia, in order to not have at least one of Turkstream’s lines idle, might offer significant price concessions,” she added.