Eastern Mediterranean gas: Testing the field
Since 2006, Europe has increasingly viewed eastern Mediterranean gas as a resource with huge potential to provide economic growth, mitigate climate change, and reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies. European companies have been involved in gas exploration, while the European Union has largely supported the idea of a new pipeline that connects Israeli and Egyptian fields with Cyprus and mainland Europe. But things might be changing. As there is a global oversupply of non-Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG), the importance of eastern Mediterranean gas is waning for Europe. Eastern Mediterranean gas is also proving to be a massive diplomatic headache, with rival claims by Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus on exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and exploration rights.
Eastern Mediterranean gas remains incredibly important for states in the region as they seek to enhance their energy security and drive economic development. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Levant Basin – the waters of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine – contains 122.4 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas. To date, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine have discovered gas – which has stimulated cooperation between Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. Turkey, however, disputes the right of the Republic of Cyprus to conduct gas exploration without the involvement of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Gas production would be a veritable boon to cash-poor Cyprus and Lebanon. Egypt and Israel are cooperating in trading and re-exporting gas. Turkey has practised brinkmanship to defend what it believes to be its rights to conduct gas exploration around most of the island of Cyprus, but would similarly benefit from discoveries of its own. Italy’s Eni has the largest stakes in the region, with massive holdings in Egypt and exploration blocks off the Republic of Cyprus and Lebanon. Other Western companies – including BG (United Kingdom), Total (France), Kogas (Korea), ExxonMobil (United States) – have joined Eni in Cyprus, while BG owns the lone field in Palestine. BP (UK) has considerable holdings in Egypt, while Noble (United States) and Israeli companies own Israeli fields. Lastly, Russia’s Rosneft and Novatek have stakes in Egypt and Lebanon respectively. Russia remains Turkey’s dominant gas supplier.
EEZs are not easy
Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, and the Republic of Cyprus are signatories to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which designates countries EEZs as extending 200 miles from their shores. Yet regional powers Israel and Turkey, as well as Syria, have not signed UNCLOS and do not accept its rulings on EEZs. This complicates the path forward, to put it mildly. Lebanon disputes its maritime border with Israel, which it contends was compromised by Israel’s bilateral agreement with the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey, meanwhile, argues that Cyprus is only entitled to a 12-mile EEZ until they reach a resolution on the island’s status, and claims that the TRNC has the right to explore in Greek Cypriot waters. To defend its position, Turkey has deployed exploration and drilling ships to Greek Cypriot waters and sent naval vessels to harass international companies’ operations. Much as China has done in the South China Sea, Turkey has engaged in brinkmanship that has frozen the development of gas in disputed waters.
Production within these disputed waters would constitute a red line for Turkey. Since losing control of the oil-rich Mosul province in the first world war, Turkey has been unwilling to let others exploit oil or gas to which it believes it has rights. In early 1974, Greece began exploring for oil in the Aegean, which escalated tensions over Cyprus and culminated in Turkey’s invasion and the establishment of the TRNC. Turkey’s willingness to assert itself on the Libyan battlefield should remind European nations that it would act similarly in a dispute over eastern Mediterranean gas.
Spokes of the wheel
Pipelines provide the best economies of scale for exporting gas. This is why Egypt, Israel, the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, and Italy all support the construction of the subsea EastMed gas pipeline to Italy – a move that would cut out Turkey. However, Libya and Turkey delineated their maritime border in November 2019, blocking the pipeline’s path. Turkey’s move was diplomatically clever but, as the EastMed pipeline was never an attractive investment (at an estimated cost of $6 billion-$7 billion), no capital has been committed to the project.
The Republic of Cyprus already has agreements to send future gas exports – beyond what the island consumes – to US allies Egypt and Israel for re-export. Egypt and Israel have cooperated on hydrocarbons since the Suez Canal reopened in 1975; Israel started exporting gas from its Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egypt in January 2020. Egypt’s Mediterranean LNG export terminals at Idku and Damietta can flexibly serve Europe, but are less commercially advantageous for Israel than a pipeline that runs directly from its Mediterranean fields. Exports from Idku rose by 151 per cent between 2018 and 2019. Damietta is slated to come back online in July 2020.
In 2016 Israel discussed gas distribution by pipeline to Turkey, the largest nearby market. This pipeline would be cheaper than the EastMed project, but it faces significant political challenges. Israel, for its part, seeks as many gas export options as possible, which would bestow commercial advantages in pricing and security against disruptions in its current destination markets, Egypt and Jordan.
Foreign companies and great powers
The interests of commercial players – many of which are European and have government backing – also shape the landscape. Eni is especially strong in Egypt, where it operates the supergiant Zohr field and others. Egypt has the largest gas reserves in the region, at 75.5 trillion cubic feet. BP is also well positioned in Egypt, while Total has been one of the two most active explorers in the Republic of Cyprus and Lebanon, alongside Eni. All three European companies want to enhance their gas portfolios and diversify away from oil, a step that reflects the strategic priorities of their respective governments as they look to advance national economic interests but also strengthen European energy security. Noble operates the major fields in Israel, which are majority-owned by Israeli companies.
|Country||Gas fields (reserves) and exploratory blocks (year awarded)|
|Republic of Cyprus||
Bouri (3.5 tcf): Eni 50%
|Turkey and Turkish Cyprus||
Determined to protect its European market share, Russia has taken its own commercial stakes in eastern Mediterranean gas. Russian companies have producing shares in Egypt and exploration blocks in Lebanon. In early 2020, Russia attempted to shore up its market share by offering Turkey a 6 per cent discount on gas supplied through the newly inaugurated TurkStream pipeline. Because Russia is a natural ally of Turkey on eastern Mediterranean gas, there were rumours in January 2020 that Russia might recognise the TRNC – although Vladimir Putin later shot them down.
Meanwhile, US exports of LNG to Turkey have grown spectacularly since 2015, including by 30 per cent between 2018 and 2019. As the US is now a gas exporter, it somewhat shares Russia’s view of eastern Mediterranean gas. Neither country is eager to see new supplies of gas come online and compete for European market share. During the Trump presidency, the two countries have indirectly cooperated in restricting global oil supplies to gain market share. However, both want to extend the era of hydrocarbon dominance of the global energy system. As such, efforts to ensure that the world is well supplied with hydrocarbons are the most effective method of securing future demand. These competing interests help explain each country’s ambivalent energy diplomacy and quiet statecraft on eastern Mediterranean gas.
In January 2020, Turkey began to deploy gas exploration vessels close to its new maritime border with Libya. The move brought Turkey further into alignment with Italy – which also backs Libya’s Government of National Accord. This creates some future potential for new cooperation on eastern Mediterranean gas more broadly.
Historically low gas prices and a supply glut in Europe make eastern Mediterranean gas less commercially attractive than it once was. The coronavirus will further depress new investment. In April 2020, ExxonMobil postponed drilling in Cyprus until 2021; in May, Eni, and Total followed suit. Due to the methane emissions it creates, gas faces further resistance from those concerned about climate change – although the advancement of blue hydrogen technology, which captures and transforms methane into hydrogen, could help reduce this. In 2019 the West and its Asian allies committed to the long-term development of hydrogen as an alternative to a renewables-only strategy for the energy transition. In future, Europe will still want eastern Mediterranean gas, but not as urgently as it once did.