Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hunt for Energy Sources - A Potential for Conflict

Two potential flash points have come into focus in two different parts of the globe – one in the South China Sea and the other in the Eastern Mediterranean with striking similarities.  The two flash points have a common issue linking them and that is the exploitation of natural resources under the sea. In both the cases, a dominant littoral power is seeking to coerce the smaller states in the region in order to prevent these states from carrying out exploration activities.

In the South China Sea, the dominant power China which claims absolute sovereignty over the waters and the islands located on the sea has been warning the lesser power viz. Vietnam to desist from entering into a venture with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh for oil exploration in two blocks claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea. 

Turkey is at the heart of a gas exploration row in the Mediterranean. Israel and the Greek-speaking government of Cyprus are exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and Israel has laid claim to a massive deepwater gas field discovered in 2009. Turkey, increasingly assertive in the region under Erdogan, disputes Israeli and Cypriot offshore territorial claims and says Cyprus should not exploit resources until it resolves a stand-off with its breakaway Turkish-speaking north.

The quarrel over gas escalated in recent weeks, just as relations between Israel and Turkey abruptly broke down over Israel's refusal to apologize for its raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last year in which nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara died. 

Turkey said it would carry out its own energy surveys with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state - under escort by its war ships if necessary - if Cyprus pressed ahead with drilling. 

Texas-based Noble Energy which is carrying out the drilling operations for Cyprus has been conducting offshore drills in the eastern Mediterranean for Israel since 1998. 

The recent saber-rattling came as Texas-based Noble Energy Inc. began exploratory drilling farther south between Cyprus and Israel around September 18, despite Turkish warnings to halt the project, the semi-official Cyprus News Agency reported. Noble was operating under license from the Republic of Cyprus, the island's internationally recognized government in the Greek Cypriot south.

The developments raised the stakes in a dispute over drilling rights around the divided island.
Turkish leaders say the Republic of Cyprus shouldn't drill for oil and gas on the continental shelf that it delineated with Israel in an agreement last year. Any drilling or maritime agreements, Ankara says, should wait until the island—divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a Greek-backed coup—is reunified, so both the Greek and Turkish populations can benefit.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz described the Cypriot exploration project as "a political provocation aimed at consolidating the Greek Cypriot administration's status," and so short-circuiting reunification talks for the island, Turkey's state Anadolu news agency reported.

Mr. Yildiz also reiterated a Turkish warning that it would make its own agreement with the de facto government of Northern Cyprus to delineate the continental shelf north of the island, if Noble Energy were to proceed with its drilling plans. Ankara would then authorize the Turkish Petroleum Corp. to send research vessels to begin exploration in the Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot waters, he said.

The Republic of Cyprus is a European Union member state, but isn't recognized by Turkey. By contrast, Turkey is the only country to recognize the administration of the government of the island's ethnic-Turkish North. The two sides are divided by a United Nations-monitored green line.

Ankara's threat of military action came on the heels of similar threats Turkey made in recent weeks to send naval vessels to escort future aid convoys that attempt to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. Those combative policies risk confrontation with Cyprus and Israel, as well tensions with the EU and Washington, diplomats said, noting that Cyprus is an EU member and Noble Energy is a U.S. company.

A spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign-affairs service said Monday in Brussels that the EU urged "Turkey to refrain from any kind of threat or sources or friction or action" that could damage relations in the neighborhood or border settlement talks.

Noble Energy is also involved in developing Israel's Leviathan field, which contains an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet, or about 453 billion cubic meters, of natural gas. Noble's partner in that project, Israel's Delek Drilling LP, has applied to the Greek Cypriot government to activate an option to take a 30% share in the Cypriot exploration license, too, said a senior industry executive familiar with the project.

Washington has not only given Noble Energy a go-ahead to start drilling off Cyprus but backed it up with a State Department statement: "The US supports the efforts to enhance energy diversity in Europe, noting the fact a US company was involved was also positive."

Since September 13, 2011 Turkish troop reinforcements have been reported by debkafile's military sources as having landed in North Cyprus along with drilling equipment. These preparations indicated that Turkey was planning to start drilling in the Cypriot EEZ without reference to Nicosia. This meant that Prime Minister Erdogan, while spouting high-sounding pledges to "preserve "freedom of navigation in international waters," was preparing a wildcat breach of international law and treaties. Athens warned Ankara against pursuing this step.

Since September 14, Turkish warplanes and fighters kept watch on the Homer Ferrington rig belonging to Houston-based Noble Energy as it moved from Israel's offshore field Noa opposite Ashdod to Cyprus's Aphrodite (Block 12) field ready to start work.

It was the first time since the Mavi Marmara episode of May 2010 that Turkish warships came less than 80 kilometers from Israel's territorial waters. debkafile's military sources report that Israeli missile ships and drones kept watch from afar on the Noble rig's movement and tracked Turkish surveillance. As the rig moved into position opposite Cyprus, so too did two Turkish frigates. A Cypriot spokesman said Turkish warships and fighters had not entered the island's territorial waters.

Ankara has questioned Israel and Cyprus' rights to drill for hydrocarbon reserves in the respective Exclusive Economic Zones marked out in an accord they concluded last year.

Interestingly, Greece and Israel concluded a mutual defense pact on September 4, 2011. Ten days later, Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to activate the pact in the light of Turkish threats against Israel and to exploration activity in the Mediterranean basin. Israel and Greece have therefore begun to coordinate their fleet movements in the eastern Mediterranean and around Cyprus.

The Eastern Mediterranean could become a potential conflict zone involving Turkey, Israel, Greece and Cyprus and possibly even the US if the Turkish Prime Minister in defiance of international law and norms prevents exploration work by resort to use of force. As of now it remains to be seen whether Erdogan in his quest for becoming another Nasser of the Islamic world opts for a military confrontation particularly with Israel or take recourse like other Muslim rulers and vent his ire on Israel.

No comments: