Natural Gas Deposits in Cyprus’ EEZ Alters Balance in East Mediterranean



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This week’s announcement of the discovery of a natural gas field containing 5 to 8 trillion cubic feet of the resource, in plot 10 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has been nothing short of explosive.

The news of the major discovery adds a fascinating new dimension to the geopolitical situation in the wider Southeastern Mediterranean region.

Although possible commercial exploitation of the deposit is a few years out, and will require the construction of pumping facilities, the discovery is critical proof that there are indeed exploitable resources in the wider area around Cyprus.

By any measure, this implies a significant source of future revenue for the island.

Still, there may not be enough of a deposit to justify an investment in a gas liquefaction plant, or a much larger pipeline such as the one for the East Med. And of course, the political situation in the region is always in flux. But Cyprus appears to be on the path of becoming a country which can earn high revenues from energy.

ExxonMobil, together with partner Qatar Petroleum, estimated in-place gas resources in the reservoir at 5 to 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, similar in order of magnitude to the Aphrodite and Calypso gas discoveries nearby, which are also in Cypriot waters.

The discovery was made at the well named “Glaucus 1,” which is located inside the boundaries of Cyprus’ Block 10 in the Republic’s EEZ.

“This is the biggest find so far in Cyprus, and based on some official data it is one of the biggest finds worldwide in the past two years,” Cypriot Energy Minister George Lakkotrypis told Reuters. The reserve is estimated to be worth $30-40 billion.

Previously, ExxonMobil officials had said that the discovery of a large quantity of natural gas deposits will lead to the construction of a terminal in Cyprus. This seems to be the company’s priority, and this has been affirmed publicly at higher levels within the corporation.

If the construction of a ExxonMobil terminal materializes, Cyprus will become an energy hub, and the presence of the U.S. in the region will undoubtedly increase. The U.S. may possibly be interested in construction of other entities on the island of Cyprus as well.

Turkey challenges the boundaries of Cyprus’ EEZ

“The dream was that the discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean would bring cooperation and peace in the region. The reality is that it may trigger more disputes,” Euthymius Petrou, former advisor to the Greek Ministry of Defense and expert on Turkish affairs, has told CNBC.

Turkey has challenged the boundaries of Cyprus’ EEZ ever since international energy companies first sent their first drilling ships to the area. Turkey claims that islands such as Cyprus do not have their own continental shelf and EEZ.

Furthermore, Turkey acts as a protector of the interests of the occupied part of northern Cyprus, which they call the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This political entity is not recognized by any nation outside Turkey.

The recent discovery of such large natural gas reserves has led to strong reactions. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pointed out numerous times, the natural wealth of the Aegean and the Southeastern Mediterranean is an important parameter which determines Turkish policy for the region.

Turkey is eager to exploit natural gas deposits in the wider region. Ankara insists that Cyprus cannot exploit its EEZ natural resources without Turkish Cypriots benefiting as well.

These positions have taken various forms of late. Turkey insists on interpreting the Law of Sea based on its interests alone. At the moment, an enormous Turkish military exercise called “Blue Homeland” is in progress in the Mediterranean. The largest such exercise in the regions’ history, it is undoubtedly meant as a show of strength.

At the same time, Turkish troops in the occupied part of Cyprus have moved further inside Cypriot territory. Cyprus State radio reports that the incursion of the Turkish military into the Strovilia area is said to have taken place between February 1 and 11.

This recent movement in effect increases the area of Cypriot territory which is under occupation.

Turkey’s efforts to reclaim some of the gas deposits and to challenge the rights of the Republic of Cyprus to exclusive exploitation have intensified. The Turkish Foreign Ministry argues that the ExxonMobil drilling on plot 10 has not contributed to the stability of the region.

However, despite the provocative statements, drilling on this site by ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum  — a U.S.-Qatar joint effort — has affected, and perhaps softened, Turkish attitudes in this particular case since both nations are Ankara’s allies.

Turkey would desire to avoid conflict with the U.S. in the region. Ankara is waiting to see how the U.S. retreat process in Syria will evolve and what will be done with the armed Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria. It should be noted that Turkey sees the Kurds as their worst enemies in the area.

In this context, Turkey is trying to speed up hydrocarbon exploration in areas within its own EEZ. Its drilling ship “Conqueror” is heading south of Antalya, where soon the first exploratory results from the seismic research vessel “Barbaros” will be announced. A second Turkish drilling rig is also preparing to sail in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It is clear that Turkey does not want to give the impression that it accepts a fait accompli in the region, especially if that means Ankara would be left out of the exploitation of natural gas.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu used martial tones in emphasizing the point recently. “Let those who come to the region from far away, and their companies, see that nothing can be done in that region without us. Nothing can be done in the Mediterranean without Turkey; we will not allow it” he declared.

The Turkish moves and rhetoric show that Turkey is simultaneously intensifying its own energy program, possibly in the areas it considers belonging to Turkish-Cypriots.

At the same time, it is attempting to form a set of claims against the Republic of Cyprus and to challenge both its sovereign rights and the possibility of its sole exploitation of its natural resources.