Drilling Out Of Debt: Could Oil And Gas Reserves Save The Greek Economy?

Drilling in Greece
Drilling in Greece
Alain Salles

ATHENS - Everyone knows that Greece’s debt is spiraling out of control, but few know that the country is an oil producer, though its production is minimal: 2,000 barrels a day – 0.5% of just its own needs.

During the 1980’s, however, Greece produced 30,000 barrels a day – 12% of its consumption – through oil fields off the coast of Kavala, in the northern Aegean Sea.

Oil deposits are nothing new in Greece. Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century B.C. “I have seen pitch drawn up out of a lake on the island of Zakynthos (…) They let down a pole into this lake, with a myrtle branch fastened to the end, and pull out the pitch that clings to the myrtle, which has the smell of asphalt.”

Twenty-five centuries later, things are not so simple. In the late 1990’s, there were unsuccessful drilling attempts in western Greece, notably in the Gulf of Patras, where the island of Zakynthos is located. Afterwards, the drilling stopped for almost 15 years. Greece did not try to explore other oil deposits, preferring to borrow money to pay for its oil, further increasing its debt.

In the meantime, Israel and Cyprus were busy discovering gas deposits in the deep waters off their countries. Neighboring Albania was deploying oil rigs.

It was not until it was faced with a tragic crisis that Greece decided to re-launch its own gas and oil exploration in late 2011. Greece has recently started accepting bids to explore the three regions that had already shown potential in the late 1990’s: Ionnina, the largest city of the Epirus region in northwestern Greece, near the Albanian border; in the Ionian sea, in the Gulf of Patras; and in Katakolo.

There are known offshore oil deposits in Katakolo, but they are small, representing an estimated four million barrels a day. Estimates for Ionnina and the Gulf of Patras are 50 to 100 million barrels.

Needless to say, major oil companies did not rush to bid on these Greek deposits. The two main candidates are Greek: Hellenic Petroleum, tied to Melrose (Italy) and Edison (UK), and Energean Oil & Gas, which is already exploiting the Kavala deposit, in partnership with Schlumberger. British oil company Chariot is bidding in the Epirus region, and the Greek government has already announced that it has selected several other areas across the country which will soon be open to bidding.

Deep below the Mediterranean

But since Israel and Cyprus discovered oil reserves in the Mediterranean, it is the waters off the southern coast of Crete that are the most sought-after. In September, Norwegian company Petroleum Geo Service was chosen to carry out seismic surveys on 220,000 square kilometers of sea. “These studies will take about 18 months. In 2014, we will know if there’s a chance of finding oil or gas. The government will then be able to open the bids for drilling rights. After that, we’ll have to wait another five to seven years to see results,” says Theodore Tsakiris, in charge of the Geopolitics of Energy program for Eliamep, a think-tank.

Geologist Elias Konofagos believes that the most promising region is located south of Crete, facing Libya. “If there are deposits, most of them are deep underwater. We have compared geological data south of Crete to other, similar areas, like Venezuela or Timor, where gas and oil deposits were discovered.”

Given the similarities with the Levantine Sea, where the Israeli and Cypriot deposits were discovered, Konofagos believes these are mostly gas deposits, which are probably located 1,500 or 2,500 meters deep. “Every year we import between 12 and 14 billion euros worth of gas and oil. That’s the amount Greece’s creditors want the country to save by implementing austerity measures,” he says, regretting that his country has wasted 15 years since the late 1990’s.

The next couple of years will be crucial for exploration. Today it’s nearly impossible to tell whether there are important deposits and if they are exploitable. “In 1999, only two people thought there was gas in Israel and Cyprus, and that’s when they discovered three of the biggest gas deposits,” says Konofagos.

But the CEO of Energean, Mathios Rigas, warns that it can only work if conditions above ground start to change. “If seismic surveys show there is gas and oil in the Mediterranean and that we can also start production in Epirus and in the Ionian Sea, certain things will have to change," he says. "If the international market has the impression it is still dealing with the old Greek way of doing things, with its lack of transparency, no one will be interested.”

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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