Gas Mania in the Med: The Mediterranean Sea, Where throughout History Great Empires Have Clashed, Is Now the Arena for the World's Energy Giants Scrambling to Secure Access to the Oil and Gas Buried Deep under the Seabed Even Though Regional Rivalries and Unfinished Revolutions Could Threaten New Conflicts
Blanche, Ed, The Middle East
FOR MILLENNIA, THE MEDITERRANEAN Sea has been the battleground of empires where epoch-making sea battles along its crenellated coast changed the course of history, where Islam and Christianity fought a ferocious war for supremacy.
These days, the land-locked sea, for so long the front line between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, is the arena for a new kind of rivalry as global energy giants move in to exploit major gas strikes off Israel and Cyprus, with Lebanon maybe pitching in at some point.
They're also seeking to seize economic opportunities that are emerging from the political upheaval of the Arab Spring as long-time dictatorships are toppled and new, more accountable governments take their place.
To be sure, the turmoil continues, especially in North Africa, as the wave of pro-democracy revolutions struggle to find their feet. But, says Bill Higgs, CEO of exploration firm Mediterranean Oil & Gas: "There are a lot more opportunities than there were before the Arab Spring in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia," where long-standing repressive regimes were toppled within the space of eight months in 2011.
But the Arab Spring is fast becoming the Arab Winter, adding new conflicts to the older rivalries between the Arabs and Israel and between Greece and Turkey.
Now, civil war in Syria threatens to spill over into Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan as the swelling blood feud between Sunni and Shiite, exemplified by Saudi Arabia and Iran and which has instigated so much of the bloodshed in Syria over the last two years, widens a 1,300-year-old religious schism, Turkey and Greece scrap over the potentially large undersea gas fields off divided Cyprus.
Meantime, Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war and ever edgy, are at odds over a 300-sq-mile, gas-rich triangle of the Mediterranean where their maritime boundaries intersect.
But at the same time, as new governments emerge along the North African littoral, the oil and gas reserves of Algeria, Libya and Egypt are being opened up to an unprecedented degree with the demise of their dictators.
Even Morocco and Tunisia, bypassed by oilmen over the years, may be part of the hydrocarbons boom sweeping the region despite the political tensions.
Tunisia and neighbouring Libya, both struggling to emerge from dramatic regime changes that are still unfolding, are set to jointly develop a 678,000-acre offshore oil field in the Gulf of Gabes where their maritime borders converge.
The block, where exploration will be conducted by the Canadian energy company Sonde, is flanked by the El Bouri field in Libyan waters and Tunisia's Ashtart and Miskar fields. The Joint Oil Block contains a large portion of Tunisia's recent discovery.
The region has largely been ignored by energy majors. But that's changing fast. "It was the big finds in the Eastern Mediterranean that fundamentally changed the industry's view of the region" in 2009-11, The Financial Times observed.
The US Geological Survey estimates the Levant Basin, covering the waters of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Cyprus and Egypt, contains 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas and 1.7bn barrels of oil.
The energy industry in the Mediterranean changed dramatically in 2009, when large gas deposits were found off Israel. Until then, Libya and Algeria had been the main energy powers in the Med.
So far, the deep waters off Israel and Cyprus, divided between Greeks and Turks since Turkey seized the northern part of the island in 1974, have turned up around 35 tcf, the equivalent of around half of Canada's entire reserves. Turkey bitterly opposes exploration by the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia, which is internationally recognised, unlike the Turkish controlled northern sector of the island, until reconciliation has been negotiated.
The prospect for that seems remote given current animosities, but Nicosia is determined to move ahead with a project that will transform the economy of the resource-poor island. …