The Eastern Mediterranean may be the final frontier for increased European energy security, and could provide a significant advantage in the battle to decrease carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to harmful anthropogenic climate change.
Over the past seven years, a wave of natural gas fields have been discovered in the waters surrounding Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt – including Cyprus’ Aphrodite field, discovered in 2011, and Egypt’s massive Zohr field, near Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, discovered in 2015. The success of Zohr has been such, that Egypt recently made the leap from being a net importer of natural gas, to becoming a net exporter, with gas being transported to international markets in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“Discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean like Zohr, Leviathan [an Israeli natural gas field], and Aphrodite, are certainly very encouraging for this region, and they certainly suggest to us that there is the potential for future discoveries to be made, and that’s why we’re here exploring,” said Tristan Aspray, ExxonMobil’s Vice President of Exploration for Europe, Russia, and the Caspian.
ExxonMobil – along with it partner, Qatar Petroleum – is currently conducting exploratory drilling in Block 10 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The commencement of exploratory drilling on November 16th was considered a ground-breaking move, in more senses than one. Turkey has laid claim to parts of Cyprus’ EEZ, and while block 10 does not fall within the effected area, the Turkish government strongly objected to the initiation of drilling activities. With no actions having been taken by the Turkish side, and preliminary results expected by the end of the year, expectations are high.
Should a sizable discovery of natural gas be made, Cyprus could, at long last, make the exploitation of its offshore gas resources commercially viable. Noble Energy made a significant discovery in 2011 in the Aphrodite field. However, reserves were not considered sufficient to be commercially viable. Italy’s ENI announced the discovery of Calypso, in Block 6 in February of this year, with an estimated 6-8 Tcf (trillion cubic feet) of natural gas, but a confirmatory drilling is still pending.
“Cyprus has seen relatively few exploration wells drilled in its history. We would still regard it as frontier exploration acreage with significant remaining uncertainties,” explained Aspray, noting that “success is far from guaranteed.” Still, Aspray said, “we’re optimistic about the prospects in Block 10,” given the recent discoveries in Cypriot waters – like Aphrodite and Calypso. The latter discoveries demonstrate that the “play elements are present on a regional scale” and this, added Aspray, means that “there are clearly reservoirs that can contain this gas in commercial quantities at places like Zohr and Aphrodite and Calypso, and that’s very encouraging.”
In order for any gas in Block 10 to be commercially viable, there would need to be multiple Tcf sized discoveries, noted Aspray, adding, “It’s hard to give you a specific number for a commercial threshold for any particular development solution, because it depends on not just the amount of gas found, but the quality of the reservoir in which that gas is found.” Technical factors such as the permeability of the reservoir, the ease of flow of the gas to the production wells, along with whether the gas is concentrated, are what will determine the specific economic threshold for any development solution, explained Aspray.
Assuming the story goes as hoped, and enough commercially viable natural gas is found in Block 10, the next step would be to figure out how to get it to market. Cypriot Energy Minister, Georgios Lakkotrypis, has said that the country is leaving all options on the table: a pipeline connecting Cypriot reserves with two Egyptian LNG [liquified natural gas] plants, a floating LNG facility, an onshore LNG plant, or the East Med gas pipeline project. “The idea is to find multiple routes, as well to drive gas to the European continent, because you don’t want to build dependencies on routes”, explained Lakkotrypis in a previous interview, stressing that all projects form part of “the Eastern Med corridor of natural gas to the European Union”.
In fact, an agreement was signed in late September between the Egyptian and Cypriot governments, for the construction of an underwater gas pipeline – valued at $800 million – for the transfer of Cypriot natural gas to Egypt’s LNG facilities, and its subsequent re-export to international markets. A decision on the 2,000-kilometer East Med pipeline – which would cross from Israel and Cyprus into Greece and Italy- is expected sometime in 2019.
Aspray acknowledged that these are all workable options, but made it clear that “our [ExxonMobil’s] preference would be to bring that gas onshore to Cyprus, use some of the gas to meet local demand, and then liquefy the rest in a liquefaction plant – an LNG plant – so that it can be exported on ships to markets in Europe and potentially beyond.” The reasoning is two-fold, said Aspray: “We think that would give more benefits to the local economy – a major infrastructure project like that – but also give Cyprus more flexibility in its marketing options.”
The company is finishing its exploratory drilling very soon — and will then know whether to move forward with natural gas production and the potential development of an offshore LNG plant on the island.
As the Cypriot exploration wraps up near the year’s end, another ExxonMobil venture in the Eastern Mediterranean will gear up: looking for natural gas offshore Greece in southwest and western Crete, along with its consortium partners, Hellenic Petroleum and France’s Total.
“[We’re] very excited about the potential of this area, it’s a huge area that’s never seen a single exploration well, so we think there’s great potential there” enthused Aspray. “Our interest in the area comes actually largely from projecting geology from north and southeast of that area into the offshore Crete area, and our ideas are bringing those geological trends into this very under-explored area.”
However, Aspray was quick to acknowledge that it is very early in the game. The first part of the consortium’s exploration programme, will be focused on gathering reconnaissance seismic data, to assess whether their “geological ideas there can be converted into drilling opportunities”.
These blocks have another challenge, though: the waters depths average around 3,000 metres — quite high for exploration activity. However, Aspray pointed out, that it is “not beyond what the industry has been able to do in other parts of the world, for example, in places like the Gulf of Mexico, where there are developments now, producing in similar water depths.” So, while it would be one of the deepest waters the industry is exploring, it is “by no means beyond the current capabilities of the industry,” said Aspray.
The consortium of energy companies still has to wait, for the Greek parliament to approve the exploration before beginning any activity – Aspray said he hopes this will happen in the next few months.
If ExxonMobil’s ventures in Cyprus and Greece prove fruitful, along with those of other super energy majors, this would be a huge boon to energy security in Europe, a continent that imports the majority of its gas from Russia, and where production of primary energy is declining. “Clearly, if there are significant new discoveries and additional developments, the region could, yes, become a very significant supplier of gas to Europe, and markets potentially beyond as well.” stated Aspray.
Additionally, the potential discoveries would greatly aid Europe in meeting its ambitious energy targets: EU member states aim to increase their share of renewable resources to 20 percent by 2020, and 32 percent by 2030. As Aspray explained, “the more renewables you deploy, the more you need natural gas to act as a backup, due to the inherently intermittent nature of [the] renewable sources of energy” — that is, the sun does not always shine, and wind does not always blow.
Natural gas is the obvious back-up source for renewables, because natural gas turbines can be fired up quickly when needed, said Aspray, and natural gas used in power generation produces around half of the carbon dioxide that coal does. “We think that natural gas has a very significant role to play, in what we call the dual energy challenge” – referring to the need to meet growing energy demands worldwide, while simultaneously reducing the inherent environmental impact of the growing energy output.
The large scale switching in the United States, from coal-fired power to gas-fired power, has translated into a decline in associated CO2 emissions, equivalent to 1.5 per cent per annum, over the past 15 years, said Aspray. In the case of the United Kingdom, the results have been even more dramatic. The combination of an increased use of natural gas and renewables in power generation, has brought about a 70 per cent reduction in derived CO2 emissions, versus levels in 2005 – figures last seen in the 1890s.
“So, it’s not a question of renewables or natural gas,” Aspray reiterated. You need both.
Within the coming months, ExxonMobil will have substantive data on its exploratory blocks in Cypriot and Greek waters – hopefully leading to a positive outlook for Europe’s clean energy goals, and heightened energy security.