The talks around potential -and significant- gas reserves within the Greek territory, especially southern of Crete, do not present a new case. The idea of an energy-rich Aegean Sea has been standing there for decades, however, it seems that only after the Greek economic crisis has started, a more focused and serious approach has been adopted. Since the early 2010s, the potential gas reserves in the region have been a quite popular topic among academic circles, in-country media and Greek society as a whole.
It as been almost two weeks since reports about signs of considerable gas reserves in the southern part of the country monopolized the headlines of local news once again. The comments triggering the massive media interest, have been made during a conference on the strategic role of Hellenic Hydrocarbons, hosted by the “Circle of Ideas for National Reconstruction” think tank. According to the aforementioned estimations, the gas reserves in field Talos south of Crete might reach up to 10 trillion cubic feet (tcf), a number that could cover the needs of Greece in natural gas for almost 70 years. Strangely enough, though, those statements have been promptly downplayed by the largest oil refiner in Greece, Hellenic Petroleum. The reaction of HP has been projected as a realistic one, however, it is indicative of the hesitant mindset characterizing the Greek side, when it comes to exploitation of energy reserves in the Aegean and South-Eastern Mediterranean Sea. A mindset being built up for decades, highlighting the incapacity -or rather unwillingness- of Greek administrations to take advantage of such a critical and promising issue.
The options for Greece today are specific and quite straightforward. The Greek side has done its bit in terms of negotiations with Turkey and efforts to find common ground. Diplomacy has hardly worked so far, leaving Greece passively watching neighboring countries, such as Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel moving ahead with research and exploitation of their gas reserves. Indeed, the considerable confirmed amounts of natural gas resources in the respective EEZ of these countries, have boosted the probability of similar findings in the Greek underwater terrain, making the need for decisive action even more imperative. At this point though, we should stress out that the discovery of “giant gas fields” has a completely different meaning for a country of 1.2 million people like Cyprus, and Greece with a tenfold population or Egypt of almost 100 million people.
Securing a Greek Exclusive Economic Zone
The sovereign rights across the Aegean Sea and the South-Eastern Mediterranean have been a long-time point of friction for Greece and Turkey. Since diplomacy has been far from fruitful so far, Athens is actually left with two options. Starting with the possibility of taking the dispute to the International Court, an option that might look rational especially for Greece, but is hardly a purposeful strategic move. Even though Athens could support the case with convincing evidence in an International Court -either in the International Court of Justice in Hague or the International Tribune for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg- still there are no guarantees that the final decision would definitely fulfill Greek objectives, utilizing mainly the Median Line methodology, instead of the “proportionality criterion”; additionally such a process would be significantly time-consuming, slowing down even further the already-delayed initiative for the exploitation of energy reserves in the Aegean. And last but not least there is no assurance, that Ankara will comply with the final Court decision; an approach similar to the one adopted by Beijing in the South China Sea is probable, in case Turkish interests are put at stake.
Now let’s have a look at the alternative route that Greece could follow. As discussed in one of our previous articles, Turkey has been threatening Greece with casus belli, in case Athens proceeds with establishing its Exclusive Economic Zone. A determined and responsible Greek government would call Turkey’s bluff and proceed with the announcement of the EEZ, knowing that Turkey would not go that far and take the offensive against their neighboring country and fellow-NATO member. Considering current geopolitical balances, Turkish aggressiveness will jeopardize even further the country’s international standing, as a potential attack would be justified by no means under the International Law. Erdogan, being certainly a pragmatist, comprehends that Ankara has already too many loose ends, considering the on-going operations in Syria and the international attention the country has drawn due to the targeting of the Kurdish populations, the ups and downs of the economy over the last five years and the country’s foreign policy wavering between East and West. Declaring a casus belli is a low risk/high return strategy, as long as Greece is falling for it, and makes perfect sense for Ankara; on the other hand, a wide-scale offensive would be absolutely irrational, thus highly unlikely.
Keeping up with the same old story and beyond
Greek governments have been traditionally downgrading the vital issue of in-country energy reserves; however, what used to be an insignificant matter, in terms of public attention, in the past decades, has now turned to a major popular debate, blocking any given administration from intentionally ignoring it anymore. Especially since 2012, when the impact of the economic crisis became more intense for the Greek people, major political figures played the card of the immediate establishment of the Hellenic EEZ, making promises that were never fulfilled. The unilateral announcement of EEZ and the direct exploration and exploitation of energy reserves in the Aegean should be the most appropriate option for current Greek administration in a context of smart and agile diplomacy. However, such a decisive change in the Greek yielding stance is highly unlikely; there are two scenarios expected to happen during the 4-year term of the current conservative government. There might be an effort to further delay any action around the exploitation of energy fields in the Aegean Sea, a latency that could be legitimized in public conscience, by claiming that drilling might have a severe impact on the Greek eco-system, invoking the topical arguments of green energy and eco-friendly alternative resources. On the other hand, considering Turkey’s aggressive stance and comprehending that Ankara’s strategic goal is to secure a considerable portion of the gains that the Greek energy sector could have from exploiting the Aegean, the potential of joint exploitation cannot be ruled out. This is the exact Turkish agenda that Erdogan has been pushing for in Cyprus, and a more careful look could reveal that the Turkish intentions are similar for the Greek territory. Such a development would be an unprecedented failure for Athens and a tremendous victory for Ankara, but still, it would not be surprising this hypothetical joint exploitation to be sold to Greek people as a success; highlighting that Greece has finally started gaining from an area and a sector that has been always dormant.