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In 2010, the US Geological Survey published a study estimating that there are 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves in the Levant Basin and 6.3 trillion cubic meters of gas and 1.8 barrels of oil in the Nile Delta Basin. According to estimates, there are also significant gas reserves in south-east Crete. This would bring the total reserves in the Mediterranean region to more than 10 trillion bcm. Compared to the Russian gas reserves of 47.6 trillion, the Iranian reserves of 34 trillion and the Qatari reserves of 23.9 trillion bcm, this amount is small and may not change the global energy balance, but may influence price trends. In view of the energy requirements of Europe and Türkiye, the newly discovered gas reserves could be an opportunity for both sides.
The reserves in the eastern Mediterranean include, in particular, Tamar and Leviathan in Israel, areas near the island of Cyprus, Egypt, Gazza, Lebanon and Syria. However, the extraction of gas reserves is hampered by conflicts and disagreements in Israel, Gazza, Lebanon, Syria and the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. The oil and gas companies, most of which are state-owned, are focusing on large investments for both the extraction and transportation of gas either through pipelines or liquefaction for sea transport. Such strategic planning requires a long-term perspective. Unfortunately, the current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean does not exactly inspire confidence. These companies are therefore rethinking their strategies in light of recent conflicts.
Egypt and Israel play a central role in this picture, as they hold most of the proven gas reserves. The transport of their gas to Europe through Türkiye with the pipelines would be more profitable rather than LNG transportation. On the other hand, this is closely linked to their relations with Türkiye. Before the recent Israeli attack on Gazza, there was an expectation that relations between Israel and Türkiye would deepen in this regard. Today, however, it is not yet clear how the conflict between Israel and Gaza can be resolved and how Türkiye’s relations with Israel will develop with regard to the transport of Israeli gas through pipelines from Türkiye.
With the agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), Türkiye has expanded its gas exploration activities in the Mediterranean. However, Türkiye’s drilling activities in the Mediterranean have not led to any gas discoveries. The EU’s sanctions against Türkiye for drilling in the Mediterranean have had only a limited impact on the EU’s already poor relations with Türkiye. Turkish government indicated that these activities are legal based on 2011 agreement with the TRNC. Unfortunately, Türkiye has stopped drilling in the last three years.
The Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (SC) signed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreements with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007 and Israel in 2010 and launched the first round of tenders for exploration work in 2007. These agreements were condemned by both the TRNC and Türkiye and both pointed out that they are invalid as the agreements ignore the Cyprus issue and Turkish Cypriot rights in the maritime areas.
In January 2020, Southern Cyprus, Greece and Israel agreed to build an underwater pipeline to supply Europe with an alternative source of natural gas, without involving Türkiye. Originally, the EU and the USA supported the project. However, support for the project declined due to technical challenges and ongoing territorial disputes between Türkiye and SC over parts of the planned route. The exclusive economic zone agreement between Libya and Türkiye on delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean in 2019 also poses a further challenge for the planned pipeline.
Overall, it would be better if the EU created the necessary incentives for the exploration and transport of gas in this region, as the European Union already needs gas, especially after the sanctions against Russia. Cooperation between Türkiye, the EU and both Northern and Southern Cyprus can be an opportunity for this endeavor. Given the considerable energy reserves of countries close to Türkiye, Türkiye can play a key role in the transition of energy from its east to the west. Türkiye has no trans-regional pipeline infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it has developed significant pipeline connections with Eurasia. As a future hub of energy transit routes, Türkiye can benefit from its geostrategic location, which could potentially have a positive impact on the economy. Both Europe and Türkiye can benefit from the potential of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean through co-operation and Türkiye’s diversification into new energy markets such as Libya, Iraq, Africa and the Caucasus.
Dr. Gülsüm Akbulut
Director of Global and Turkish Economic Studies
Foreign Policy Institute
28 January 2024