Cyprus’ exploration of offshore hydrocarbon resources continues despite Turkey’s resistance. Now, energy giants Eni and Total have come onboard and signed a licensing agreement with the island country, yet anticipation that these companies will soon begin drilling for gas has prompted strong Turkish response.
On September 17th, Turkish news source Ahval reported that the drillship Yavuz – one of two Turkish ships deployed to search for hydrocarbons – had withdrawn from Cyprus’ disputed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Curiously, no explanation was given for the ship’s changed status.
Back in July, the Turkish Energy Minister announced that Yavuz was due to begin drilling this summer, but Greek newspaper Kathimerini has reported that no such activities have commenced to date. Yavuz is now anchored in the Port of Taşucu in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus, while drillship Fatih remains in the EEZ area.
Yavuz was first dispatched on June 21nd as part of Turkey’s ongoing efforts to lay claim to parts of the energy-rich territories already belonging to Cyprus. The island country, along with Greece, disputes Turkish statements that it is drilling in areas that belong to part of the Turkish continental shelf, and that Cypriot drilling violates the rights of the Turkish-Cypriot breakaway north. The EU has openly backed Cyprus multiple times; support that has begun to bear fruit for the divided island as energy companies actively seek to invest in the EEZ.
Two energy companies have teamed up to sign a licensing agreement that will expand the search for natural gas off Cyprus’ southern shores – Eni, based in Italy, and Total, based in France. Cypriot Energy Minister Georgios Lakkotrypis has said both companies will receive an equal share in a new block that is believed to possess gas deposits near those discovered by Eni last year in an adjacent area.
Through this agreement, Total will gain a 20 to 40 percent share in four of Eni’s concessions inside Cyprus’ EEZ. Korean energy company Kogas is also a partner, with a 20 percent share in three out of the four concessions.
Eni and Total now hold exploration licenses for seven of Cyprus’ 13 blocks and are expected to drill six wells – along with a total of nine exploratory and appraisal wells overall – during the next two years.
Energy company ExxonMobil, and a partnership between Texas-based Noble Energy, Dutch Shell and Israeli Delek, also hold licenses. In early 2019, ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum announced the discovery of a gas field in their concession that is estimated to contain anywhere from 5 to 8 trillion square feet of natural gas. Noble Energy revealed the finding of a field estimated to hold 4.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in late 2011.
President Nicos Anastasiades told The Associated Press on September 17th that there are “sufficient quantities” of gas in Cypriot waters for exploitation. Energy Minister George Lakkotrypis called the licensing agreement signing an “important development”, as it widens the presence of international companies in Cyprus’ EEZ, while strengthening the government’s strategic partnerships. The ultimate goal is for natural gas to begin flowing into Egypt’s LNG facility from the Aphrodite gas field via a pipeline in 2025, generating revenues that very same year.
Block 7 Contentions
The signing-on of Italy and France to Cypriot hydrocarbon exploration, however, has prompted Turkey to issue a warning for Cyprus to halt their search in Block 7, which Turkey claims overlaps a section of their own continental shelf. Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said, “Part of the so-called license area Number 7 — as we have repeatedly underlined and shared with the international community — remains within the continental shelf of our country, which is also registered with the United Nations.”
Turkey claims that hydrocarbon exploration without the participation of Turkish Northern Cypriots is illegal in large swathes of the EEZ, namely in blocks 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
“Turkey will in no way allow any foreign country, company or vessel to engage in unauthorised hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation activities within its maritime jurisdiction and [will] take the necessary measures to protect its rights and interests”, Aksoy added. “This signature proves the Greek Cypriot Administration insists on maintaining the irresponsible attitude that disregards the equal, inseparable rights and interests of Turkish Cypriots to the natural resources in and around the island.”
The Cypriot Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response, condemning Turkey for showing “utter disregard for conventional and customary international law and its disrespect for the sovereign rights of the Republic”. That Eni and Total have signed on for further hydrocarbon exploration and development in the region constitutes “an undeniable vote of confidence” in Cyprus against Turkish manoeuvring.
“Turkey deliberately fails, once again, to comply with international law, by making groundless claims and disregarding the position of the international community in full support of Cyprus’ sovereign rights”, the statement continues.
“The exploration and/or exploitation of Block 7 is an exclusive sovereign right of Cyprus and does not affect the rights of any third state, including Turkey”, said the Cyprus Foreign Ministry. “A country’s natural wealth belongs to the state and the responsibility for managing it lies with its government for the benefit of all its citizens.”
Greek PM Delivers Message to Turkey
As tensions in Cyprus refuse to dissipate, heads of state of Greece and Cyprus were all in attendance at the United Nations General Assembly, held in New York City last week. In his speech to the UN, Anastasiades stated his desire for reunification of the divided country, but called out Turkey’s “gunboat diplomacy” and noted their actions in Cyprus’ EEZ “severely undermine the aim of having a conducive environment for meaningful negotiations”. He also questioned how the UN’s negotiations could experience any true progress while Turkey repeatedly undermines Cyprus’ sovereign rights.
On September 25th, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis met with Erdogan to discuss Greek-Turkish relations and delivered a message on behalf of Anastasiades that Cyprus is ready to start up new negotiations for the reunification of the divided island through a bizonal bicommunal federation (BBF).
Several days before the General Assembly, President Erdogan spoke out at a conference in Ankara stating Turkey’s military will protect its deployed drillships as the country explores Cypriot territory for hydrocarbons. “Those who think that the wealth of the island and the region only belongs to them will face the determination of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots”, said Erdogan.
Meanwhile, the Turkish president reiterated in his UN speech on September 24th that he will not hesitate to protect Turkey’s interests in Cyprus, and once again reproved calls to withdraw troops from the island.
Ongoing tensions between countries may hinder Cyprus’ ambitions to become a regional energy supplier. Only by resolving the Turkish-Cypriot hydrocarbon issue – and ultimately the island’s reunification – can Cyprus hope to fully engage the natural gas market. Whether future negotiations can reap successful results remains to be seen.