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Europe v. Turkey: A New Mediterranean Gas Race That May Turn Nasty

Europe needs new energy sources. One alternative to Russian gas could be in the eastern Mediterranean. But with Turkey also actively exploring the region for reserves, the potential for conflict is high.

The "Abdülhamid Han​" ship takes the sea.

The "Abdülhamid Han" ship takes the sea.

Christine Kensche

It is the pride of the Turkish fleet. The bow of the "Abdülhamid Han" ship is painted red, with a crescent moon and star emblazoned on the sides. Like all four of Turkey's drillships, which are used for exploratory offshore drilling, it is named after a sultan and embodies Istanbul's claims of being a great power.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls the state-of-the-art drilling ship a "symbol of Turkey's new vision in the energy sector."

When it recently set sail, he proclaimed, "Neither the puppets nor those who hold their strings will be able to prevent us from asserting our rights in the Mediterranean," apparently referring to Greece, Cyprus and their Western allies. "We don't have to ask anyone for permission or ratification," Erdogan added. "We will take what is ours."

His words make clear that a dispute is inevitable.

Erdogan's Abdülhamid Han hunt

It is true that the "Abdülhamid Han" is to start drilling in the Turkish economic zone. But it is quite narrow compared to that of Greece. And Erdogan says the ship will "keep searching until it finds something." Greek media are already expressing fears that Turkey could – once again – encroach on their or Cypriot waters. With the Ukraine war and the rush to find gas sources that could replace Russia as the main supplier, plans to exploit gas deposits in the Mediterranean are taking on new urgency – and with them, the dispute over supremacy at sea.

Since the discovery of several large gas fields at the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean more than 10 years ago, the neighboring countries have been fighting over maritime boundaries and drilling rights. The legal situation is complicated, the elements entangled: Turkey on the one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other are irreconcilably opposed. But Israel also repeatedly runs the risk of being drawn into the conflict. And it also has a bilateral dispute with Lebanon over a gas field off the Levantine coast.

From the Turkish perspective, the division of economic zones in the Mediterranean is unfair and to the massive advantage of Greece, whose countless islands and thus maritime borders extend far to Turkey. However, Greece's maritime borders are internationally recognized. Moreover, Athens has signed the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) – Turkey has not. Greece, in turn, feels threatened by Erdogan's power politics. Moreover, Turkey still occupies the north of the EU state of Cyprus and drills in Cypriot waters.

How it could escalate

In the dispute between Israel and Lebanon, which are officially in a state of war, mediators have been trying for years to establish a maritime border recognized by both sides. At the heart of the issue is the angle at which the land border will be drawn wider. Depending on interpretation, Lebanon may or may not get a piece of the gas field.

An incident two years ago demonstrated how quickly the long-simmering conflict in the Mediterranean can ignite: Turkey sent a seismic exploration ship accompanied by warships to an area in the eastern Mediterranean for which Greece claims exclusive rights. Athens responded and sent warships as well. Angela Merkel mediated to prevent a military confrontation.

Are gas deposits at the bottom of the Mediterranean really the solution to Europe's energy crisis?

Just a few weeks ago, reconnaissance drones flew from Lebanon toward Israeli gas production platforms off the coast – Israel's army shot them down. This bodes ill for the future of the Turkish gas expedition – even if Turkey wants to sell it as a solution to the energy crisis resulting from the Ukraine war. In media close to the government, experts declare that the drilling ship is the beacon of hope for Europe.

The EU is searching in vain for alternative energy sources in Algeria, Azerbaijan and Qatar. If the "Abdülhamid Han" should come across larger natural gas and oil reserves, Europe would immediately abandon Greece, says a Turkish expert.

But can the gas deposits at the bottom of the Mediterranean really be the solution to Europe's energy crisis? The short answer is no – at least not in the short term. So far, the infrastructure to transport large quantities of gas to Europe is simply lacking.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his plane watching the \u200b"Abd\u00fclhamid Han" ship

Erdogan looking down from his plane at the "Abdülhamid Han" ship

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Israel, Greece And Cyprus as sources

That is the vision of the EastMed project, a pipeline Israel is planning with Greece and Cyprus that would supply energy to the European continent. It could supply an estimated 10% of Europe's energy needs.

But the cost-benefit ratio is controversial. A project that will only be completed in seven to nine years is "superfluous," said Germany's Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck a few months ago during a visit to Israel. Until then, Europe wants to separate itself from fossil fuels. A faster solution could be for Israel to work with Egypt and ship its natural gas to Europe from liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals there. This way, Israel could deliver three million cubic meters more at short notice. However, that would only be a drop in the ocean.

The Israeli operator of the Leviathan gas field is considering building another pipeline to Egypt to export more gas. Floating LNG terminals off Israel's coast, from which gas is to be exported specifically for Europe, are also currently under discussion. All of these ideas, however, will take several years to implement. And yet Israel has already been producing gas for years – Turkey’s drilling expedition must first find gas before it can even start producing it. So to call the expedition Europe's hope is more than just an exaggeration.

The renewable alternative

Will so much gas even be needed in a few years? The German Economics Minister says no, and many experts agree with him. It would be better to invest in renewable energies in the Mediterranean region than in fossil fuels. This was the reason given by the U.S. for withdrawing its support for the EastMed pipeline in January. But the energy crisis is shaking many a conviction.

"The technologies and methods of extracting gas will change," says Israeli energy consultant and lecturer at the University of Herzliya, Amit Mor. But "the consumption of natural gas will continue well into the 22nd century," Mor is convinced.

It would be better to invest in renewable energies in the Mediterranean region than in fossil fuels.

So gas deposits in the Mediterranean offer potential, he says, including geopolitical potential. "They are an opportunity for cooperation and confrontation at the same time," the expert says. Much depends on what course Turkey takes in the future, he adds.

There is at least one positive signal in addition to all the displays of power in the Mediterranean: Turkey and Israel announced the full resumption of diplomatic relations on Wednesday after years of standstill. One reason, say experts familiar with the previous negotiations, is Turkey's desire to get gas from Israel to make itself less dependent on Russian supplies.

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