No Gas, No War in the Mediterranean

Border tensions among Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus are about to boil over—but there’s a simple solution.

This pictures shows the Yavuz drillship seen from the Karpaz coast of the northern part of Cyprus, the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) close to Apostolos Andreas monastery on July 21, 2019.
This pictures shows the Yavuz drillship seen from the Karpaz coast of the northern part of Cyprus, the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) close to Apostolos Andreas monastery on July 21, 2019. IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP via Getty Images

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are in the midst of a bitter joust, on the precipice of violence, over rights to drill for natural gas. That’s despite the fact that gas is a fossil fuel that is neither environmentally sustainable nor a lucrative business proposition for the region. The parties involved can kill two birds with one stone by calling a moratorium on the exploitation of new hydrocarbon reserves in the Hellenic Trench, where the gas fields lie. This would eradicate the source of conflict as well as serve Europe’s long-term goal to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

The notion of a drilling ban—which could begin with a two-year moratorium on all undersea energy exploration—isn’t sheer fancy, as much of the Western and Central Mediterranean is already off limits to gas and oil exploration, on diverse environmental grounds. In the Aegean, most hydrocarbon exploration has been prohibited in the sea shared by Greece and Turkey since 1976.

Foremost, new gas and oil production undermines the aims of the United Nations’ Paris climate treaty to curb global warming by 2050; and it also poses an immediate threat to the sea’s highly sensitive marine environment. Moreover, the economic prospects of deep-water natural gas are extremely poor, even if gas bounces back from the dizzying price collapse prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Should drilling ever really happen in the Hellenic Trench—a 400-mile-long, 17,000-foot-deep marine canyon that stretches from northwestern Greece to southernmost Turkey—the area would surely become the burial site of billions in stranded assets, say experts.

In declaring the trench a protected area, its bordering countries—the European Union nations Greece and Cyprus, as well as Turkey—would be following in the footsteps of France, Italy, and Croatia. In 2016 France led the way by announcing a moratorium on drilling in all French seas—in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the waters of French territories abroad. All currently licensed extraction will be terminated by 2040. France argued that hydrocarbon mining contradicted the global effort to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use, which was inscribed into law in the Paris climate agreement a year earlier.

At the time, Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot underscored the reasoning of climate scientists across the globe: “80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels must remain below the Earth’s surface if we want to respect the Paris climate treaty.”

New Zealand, Ireland, Spain  and 11 U.S. states have also followed suit. Spain’s measure, when approved this year by parliament as expected, will ban all new coal, oil, and gas extraction immediately, and end direct subsidies for fossil fuels. The European Investment Bank will stop investing in fossil fuel-related projects as of the end of 2021.

The countries of the Eastern Mediterranean are also responsible for curbing global warming. All of them, with the notable exception of Turkey, have signed the Paris agreement and have emissions-reduction schedules. Moreover, Greece and Cyprus will be part of the EU’s drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 55 percent by 2030, should this benchmark be turned into law, as expected. Cyprus is already way behind on its targets and faces EU fines should it not catch up.

Furthermore, the natural gas lobby’s claim that gas is a green-tinged “bridge” energy on the road to a zero-carbon world has never rung so phony. A wide array of recent studies show that natural gas, which consists mostly of methane, can be significantly more harmful to the climate than previously thought. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that in the first two decades after its release is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. Methane is released during the extraction, transport, and processing of natural gas and its export form, liquefied natural gas.

Environmental degradation is another sound reason not to drill. Drilling’s impact on the Mediterranean’s natural ecosystems figured significantly in the bans imposed in the Western seas and apply no less to the fragile Eastern Mediterranean. (The bans in place were driven by environmentalists and the tourism branch, the latter not wanting drill rigs or their detritus befouling seaside resorts.)

The Hellenic Trench is a deep-water sanctuary of unique and threatened marine mammals, such as sperm whales, fin whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, dolphins, Mediterranean monk seals, and loggerhead sea turtles. In 2018, 100 world-renowned scientists and environmental associations wrote a declaration pleading with Athens to call off exploration of the trench. Diverse aquatic species “in the Hellenic Trench are already facing a series of direct and severe threats,” the experts wrote, which include shipping noise, collisions with vessels, overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change.

Lastly, natural gas is a supremely bad investment in an age when fossil fuels are being priced out of markets. Not only are natural gas’s “green credentials” in tatters—which could prompt a policy backlash against gas that would surely doom it—but the coronavirus pandemic has also caused the price of gas to crash. Its record-low value, now selling at even less than coal-fired power, has buoyed demand but not at a price that makes its business viable.

The extremely deep seabeds and long pipelines to the mainland make deep-water gas particularly costly to extract and deliver. “Mediterranean gas will need to find markets in regional countries where it can be delivered at low cost, and where decarbonization isn’t so high on government agendas,” Jonathan Stern of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in the United Kingdom told me.

“The export of East Mediterranean gas to Europe didn’t even make business sense at 2017 and 2018 prices,” when they were roughly twice as high as today, Stern said. “But now it’s out of the question.”

By the time that gas from Hellenic Trench sites flow into pipelines, perhaps in the late 2020s or early 2030s, carbon pricing and other disincentives would cut significantly into revenue. And the ever-lower prices of renewables and battery storage dim the prospects for gas even more.

“These wells are going to be orphaned,” said Toby Couture of the Berlin consulting firm E3 Analytics, “and the public purse will be left to take over the clean-up and remediation costs.”

Countries across the Eastern Mediterranean have received overtures from the world’s largest oil giants, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Spain’s Repsol, and the French conglomerate Total, all of which are hunting for new vistas since they’ve been stopped from drilling elsewhere. The specter of being a big player on the global gas market might appear tempting to the region’s political leaders, but it is illusory.

The EU could play a constructive role in the Greece-Turkey conflict by helping the three parties declare a moratorium—even if initially for one or two years—on exploration and switch their focus to renewable energies. Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey have immensely favorable conditions for clean energy generation—which they should exploit, with as much help from the EU as possible, rather than sparring over gas fields that will issue nothing but problems for years to come.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).