The huge new natural gas deposit discovered off Turkey’s northern coast in the Black Sea, announced on August 21st, is one of the largest in the region in recent years. At 320 billion cubic meters, it is big enough to cover Turkey’s natural gas demand for five to six years, analysts believe.
Far from sated, however, Turkey instead plans to accelerate its drilling efforts in the search for more gas or oil, focusing on the fraught eastern Mediterranean. “We will step up our activities in the Mediterranean,” vowed Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the same press conference in which he announced the Black Sea find.
Turkey wasted no time backing up that promise. In an advisory issued to sailors on August 23rd, Turkey said that one of its research vessels, the Oruç Reis, would continue surveying for oil and gas in a disputed area of the eastern Mediterranean for another four days. In protest, Greece announced a naval exercise near the island of Crete. Turkey responded by vowing a naval exercise of its own near Crete. “With this attitude contrary to international law, goodwill and neighborly relations, Greece has thrown itself into a chaos that it cannot escape,” said President Erdoğan, Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper reported.
Turkey’s plan to increase the pace of its hunt for oil and gas in the Mediterranean despite the separate Black Sea discovery — and, as of the 23rd, the extension of the Oruç Reis’ mission — are a reminder that the search for natural gas in the region is about more than just energy.
Turkey has been locked in a bitter turf war with its neighbors Greece and Cyprus for decades, and in recent weeks tensions have been running high, partly because Turkey has flanked the Oruç Reis with a handful of naval ships. Once thought to be a potential spur to collaboration, the promise of gas riches in the Aegean is increasingly proving to be yet another strain on the fraught relationships that have persisted there for decades.
For Turkey, uncovering a new natural gas or oil deposit in contested waters might allow it to argue more forcefully that the surrounding waters belong to it. In a long-festering dispute, Turkey maintains that its sovereign territory extends into the Mediterranean as far as its continental shelf, while Greece takes the view that each of its many small islands creates their own economic zones. The dispute shows no signs of resolving itself anytime soon. But if Turkey discovers a new deposit of natural gas or oil it could put Greece in the awkward position of having to object to Turkey’s right to extract a resource that has already been located and is only waiting to be pumped out.
On the other hand, a resource discovery in contested waters could also backfire on Turkey by creating a focal point around which the European Union could rally to Greece’s side. The EU’s 27 heads of state and government recently affirmed their support for Greece and Cyprus, but have mostly taken a backseat to Germany on efforts to de-escalate.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the search for oil and gas helps President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party project power to a wide range of people back home, where the view that neighboring countries are boxing Turkey in against its own shoreline unites blocs of voters who otherwise agree on little.
“Especially since last summer, the main concern of President Erdoğan has been to recover at least some part of its domestic and foreign support in order to guarantee his stay in power in the years ahead,” said Özlem Kaygusuz, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. The push for more power in the region has long been “welcomed by a considerable majority from differing political and ideological stances,” Kaygusuz added.
If the growing oil and gas potential in the Mediterranean indeed proves to be more of an accelerant to the region’s high-strung tensions rather than a salve, then all involved may soon find themselves wishing that whatever resources may be lying in wait are never discovered in the first place.