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Türkei Start Ölbohrung auf Zypern
Image: AP

Cyprus gas drilling controversy

Anthee Carassava
November 16, 2018

With deposits in Europe dwindling and efforts to reduce reliance on Russia, an untapped gas field off the island of Cyprus has gained attention. But political tension in the region may frustrate the controversial drill.


The race to exploit huge gas reserves in the Mediterranean is on. But for now, the hunt for the fuel looks more likely to inflame regional tensions.

Competing ownership claims to untapped fields fringing the island of Cyprus have sparked a war of words and military moves between countries with high stakes in the lucrative energy bonanza.

Tensions have heightened, and fears of a showdown loom, as American energy giant Exxon Mobil begins boring down the seabed of the Mediterranean island this weekend.

Read more: Race for Cyprus gas and oil sparks tensions in the Mediterranean

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called for the drilling at Block 10 — southwest of Cyprus — to be scrapped, billing the United States energy giant and other companies from Qatar and the United Kingdom, assisting in the project, "pirates" and "bandits of the sea."

Turkish president Erdogan
Turkish president Erdogan warned Greece, Cyprus and international companies in February not to "step out of line" and encroach on Turkey's rightsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Ozbilici

The stakes are high

While Turkey has not claimed the contentious field, it insists that some of Cyprus' prospecting areas lie within its jurisdiction. It also refuses to recognize what it calls "unilateral exploration activities" by Cyprus, insisting that Turkish-Cypriots on the island's ethnically divided north should receive a generous cut in any discovery.

Read more: Turkey threatens measures against Cyprus over exploration of gas deposits

Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the tiny island in the wake of a Greek-inspired coup. Repeated United Nations efforts to stitch it back together have failed, and only Turkey recognizes the island's northeast tip as an independent state. An internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government runs the rest of the island, which is a member of the European Union.

To facilitate and safeguard the contentious drilling, Cyprus has issued an advisory forbidding ships to approach the massive UK flagged excavating vessel, Stena Icemax. Washington has also waded into the looming showdown, sending battleships to shadow the exploration. It has warned Turkey that it will respond against any hostile interference in the drilling.

"Erdogan's threats are not hollow," said Costas Filis, a research director at the Athens-based Institute of International Relations. "But they should not be overestimated," he told DW.

"It would be an extremely risky gambit on his part to do anything that would spoil Turkey's ongoing bid to reestablish relations with the United States and Europe. The Turkish president has more to lose than gain from any hostile action."

Turkish warship blockade
Last year and during a similar showdown at another field off Cyprus, Turkish warships obstructed an Italian drill ship, forcing the leaseholder, Eni, to abandon its workImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Karadjias

Gas bonanza

The exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the southeast Mediterranean has become a sensitive issue since vast deposits were first discovered in a giant field in 2011. Since then, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Greece have been jockeying for control of those resources.

Read more: Turkish warships block drilling rig near Cyprus

The reserves may not only help cover domestic demand in the region but could also enable the West to diversify its supplies, reducing reliance on Russia, while compensating for dwindling North Sea deposits. By some expert accounts, the greater area in the southeast Mediterranean has a capacity of about 14.8 trillion cubic meters (500 trillion cubic feet).

Faced with such profitable prospects, Egypt — struggling with its worst energy crisis in decades — has already signed a deal with Cyprus charting sea boundaries between the two countries for the purpose of commercial exploitation. Israel has done the same with the island republic; Greece will soon follow suit, hoping to press ahead with designs to flush Cypriot and Israeli natural gas to Western Europe without Turkish permission.

Read more: German industry defends Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline

How soon that could happen remains unclear. Global demand for gas alone is expected to jump by more than 50 percent over the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental policy-coordinating and advisory body based in Paris. Therefore, such pipeline designs, serving as supplementary conduits of energy to Europe, make absolute sense.

"If Turkey wants a piece of the action," said Filis, "then it may have no other option than to encourage its Turkish Cypriot kin to return to the negotiating table and seek a solution to Cyprus' division." Otherwise, he said, Turkey would just continue to play "the role of a game spoiler."

Cyprus officials have assured that drilling at Block 10 will "proceed smoothly." Still, political turbulence and tension in the region my frustrate extraction and export plans along with economic and engineering challenges.

Cyprus: An island hoping for unity

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