Eastern Mediterranean gas has a complicated road ahead

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The gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean, discovered over the past decade, have conjured a mix of myth: Aphrodite goddess of beauty, the sorceress Calypso, and the sea beast Leviathan.

But the process of bringing these resources to market has been an odyssey with many twists and turns. Now the political struggle has become a clash of the titans.

The American firm Noble discovered the Tamar gas field off Israel in 2009, the giant Leviathan field in 2010, then Aphrodite off Cyprus (the Greek, internationally recognized country) in 2011. Eni of Italy found Zohr in deepwater offshore Egypt in 2015, the largest gas field ever discovered in the Mediterranean, then Calypso off Cyprus in 2018. Meanwhile, Greece-based Energean began developing the smaller Tanin and Karish fields in Israel.

These resources were hoped to be the foundation for a major collaborative effort in the region on gas development and exports, improving European energy security by providing an alternative to Russian gas, and tying together long-quarreling neighbors in cooperation.

In 2012, the East Mediterranean pipeline was proposed, to bring the area’s gas to Crete, mainland Greece then onwards to Italy. It would be the world’s deepest and longest undersea pipeline. Alternatively, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, possibly a floating unit, could be built somewhere to export by tanker.

Most commentary has focused on the political obstacles to development, and they are certainly massive. Israel’s maritime border dispute with Lebanon has gone quiet, and Noble has concluded deals to sell gas to neighboring Jordan and Egypt.

Instead, the main recent problems revolve around Turkey. Ankara does not recognize Greek Cyprus but backs the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which it occupies. No other country recognizes the territory.

Turkey is also not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs maritime boundaries, one of only a few states in this position. Israel, Syria, and the US are other notable hold-outs.

In November, Turkey signed an agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Libyan capital of Tripoli to demarcate their maritime border, ignoring the proximity of the Greek island of Crete. The Turkish energy minister said last month it would begin exploring the area for oil and gas within three to four months.

The Turkish drill-ship Yavuz, the title of the Ottoman sultan, who conquered the Levant and Egypt, has been drilling in various locations off Cyprus. No discoveries have been announced, nor is it clear what Turkey would do with any gas found, but the intention is to contest Greek Cyprus’s right to these waters and stake a claim for any future negotiations.

In response, the EU has sanctioned Turkish individuals over the drilling. And a grouping of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, France, and the UAE has condemned Turkey’s drilling in the area.

But the economic and commercial obstacles to the full development of the fields are, if anything, more important. Most of the local markets are small and already saturated. Egypt is well-supplied by Zohr and its legacy fields for now, though it will likely need more in the mid-2020s.

The other big regional market, Turkey, was searching avidly for additional supplies a few years back. But with the completion of the TurkStream pipeline from Russia, the Trans-Anatolian pipeline from Azerbaijan, new LNG import capacity, the option of the Iraqi Kurdistan region at some point, and a slowing economy, Ankara is now spoilt for choice. This gives it no incentive to search for political solutions to facilitate East Mediterranean imports.

What about the long-running plan of diversifying European supplies? Israeli regulations do not allow gas to be exported at a lower price than it is sold in the country. Energean, with the cheapest contracts, sells at $4 (Dh14.7) per million British thermal units.

At current oil prices, Egypt is paying gas producers about $3.50-$4.50. Yet the European market is heavily oversupplied, and the Covid-19 pandemic will drive demand down further. Spot liquefied natural gas is available now at just over $2, and the Dutch TTF hub, the leading Europe trading point, for $1.70.

Even if international prices recover, as they should to a degree, it is clear there is no economic case to build an expensive pipeline or LNG plant to move gas to Europe and sell it at a lower price.

Bringing together supplies from several countries, fields, and operators to serve a single export route is commercially tricky. Meanwhile, Egypt has even shut down its operational LNG plant, at Idku near Alexandria, and halted plans to restart the other facility, at Damietta in the eastern delta, as exports are unprofitable.

Recent exploration has been disappointing. Much-hyped wells off Egypt have been dry or found limited volumes. A consortium of Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek completed Lebanon’s debut offshore well in April, but it also came up dry. This dashed already unrealistic hopes for a hydrocarbon windfall to bail out the country’s crisis-hit economy.

Offshore gas was the reason for conceiving of the East Mediterranean as a unitary area of policy in the first place. Now it has become a secondary character in bigger political plots. Odysseus, detained by Calypso for seven years, took ten years to return home to Greece. Eastern Mediterranean gas developers face an even longer and more convoluted route ahead.

Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis