Pipeline politics

While global attention has been focused on conflicts in the Gulf and West Asia, some robust sabre-rattling has been taking place further west, in the waters of the east Mediterranean. In early November, as an Italian-Korean consortium began drilling offshore in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), two Turkish warships entered the area along with their survey vessel which began its own prospecting 40 nautical miles off the Cyprus coast. Soon, Cyprus and Israel also commenced joint military exercises in the region, deploying aircraft and anti-aircraft weaponry. Russia too joined in and began its naval exercises east of Cyprus.

After several decades of tranquillity, east Mediterranean is again at the centre of regional energy, political and maritime competitions, and could witness a sharper edge being given to historic rivalries and territorial disputes or alternatively could emerge as the fountainhead of peace and regional cooperation.

The east Mediterranean encompasses Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, with Greece and Turkey in the north and Egypt in the south. In 2010, a report of the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the east Mediterranean basin had undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas of 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf), equal to 3,455 billion cubic metres (bcm), as also oil reserves of 1.7 billion barrels.

This gas potential can meet the region’s needs indefinitely. Israel has been in the forefront in developing this potential. Its most significant gas find in 2010 was the Leviathan, which has reserves of 22tcf. With this and earlier discoveries, Israel will be self-sufficient in gas for several decades and even able to export. In 2011, Cyprus discovered gas in the Aphrodite field which has reserves of 5tcf. A small gas field abuts Palestine, off Gaza; there are also indications of gas off Lebanon and Syria. An observer has suggested this region could be the “new Persian Gulf”, while another has called it “the Middle East’s last hydrocarbon frontier”.

However, the region has its share of disputes, which impinge on its energy development. The Israel-Palestine issue and unresolved Israel-Lebanon problems have meant that the offshore potential of Palestine cannot be developed, while Lebanon asserts that Israel’s exploration has encroached into its economic zone. The other is the Cyprus issue, originating in the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, which has divided the island and strained Turkey’s ties with Cyprus and Greece.

Regional affairs have also been influenced by recent developments and the interests of outside players. The four-year conflict in Syria has ensured that the country is unable to explore and develop its potential; it has also meant that Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia, have asserted their strategic interests in the Mediterranean. Iran is propping up the Bashar al Assad regime by providing military assistance. Russia has affirmed the value of its naval base at Tartous in Syria by expanding its naval presence and entering into a 25-year energy agreement with Damascus in December 2013. From Israel’s perspective, the regional scenario could not be worse. It needs to ensure the security of its offshore oil and gas assets, even as it has lost its traditional friends in the region — Turkey and Egypt, while it sees the US in apparent retreat when Russia and Iran are expanding their influence in West Asia and the east Mediterranean.

The importance of east Mediterranean energy lies not only in domestic consumption but also in exports, particularly to Europe which is anxious to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Politics is the spoiler here. Israel and Cyprus would like to combine their gas resources (estimated at 1,100bcm) and through undersea pipeline send them to Europe. Their preferred route would be via Greece, thus putting in place an Israel-Greece-Cyprus axis, founded on energy interests butevolving into a political and even military bastion to prevent “Eastern Mediterranean (from) becoming an Islamic lake”, as an Israeli scholar has asserted.

But the Greece option has been rejected on technical, commercial and financial grounds, besides the fact that it would pass through the Turkish EEZ. The best route is a direct undersea pipeline from Israel to Turkey, which is a major consumer, regional energy hub and a Nato member. But this would not be acceptable to Cyprus since it would pass through the Cypriot economic zone. Israel, too, has reservations due to its strained ties with Turkey and concerns about its long-term regional ambitions.

This has led to increasing consideration being given to the LNG option, which is expensive and becomes viable only when a minimum quantity of gas is assured over the long term, unencumbered with political strings. This is not yet the case in east Mediterranean. In the meantime, Israel has decided to retain about 60 per cent of its production for domestic use and export mainly to its neighbours, Palestine (West Bank) and Jordan, an unheralded first step in regional reconciliation.

East Mediterranean constitutes a new frontier in West Asia for India’s diplomatic effort. So far, India’s approach has been bilateral, not regional, in that India has the best possible ties with three of the region’s giants — Turkey, Israel and Egypt but has carefully kept away from embroiling itself in the region’s contentions. Both energy and political interests now warrant a more active regional approach by India, commencing with participation in the region’s energy projects, both for exploration and transport, in time participating in multilateral efforts to address the region’s political issues.

The author is a former diplomat

( Source : dc )
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