Greece and Turkey Spar over Offshore Oil Exploration

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 222

While Turkey and Greece historically agree on very little, one thing that they have in common is a deficit of easily useable energy resources. The U.S. government’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) statistics tell the tale, listing Greece’s proven oil and gas reserves as "none” ( The 2006 issue of Oil and Gas Journal lists Greece as having oil reserves of 7 million barrels and natural gas reserves of 35 billion cubic feet (bcf). While the truth is probably somewhere in between, the reality is that Greece’s hydrocarbon reserves are insufficient to meet the country’s needs.

The picture is better for Turkey, as in 2006 the EIA listed Turkey’s proven oil reserves at 300 million barrels and its proven natural gas reserves as 300 billion cubic feet (bcf) ( Turkish oil production at 43,000 barrels per day (bpd) is dwarfed, however, by a consumption rate of 637,000 bpd, and a similar disparity exists in its natural gas industry with an annual production of 24 bcf versus usage of 793 bcf.

This production shortage has led both nations to prospect across their territory; and this led to a misunderstanding in the southeastern Aegean on November 14, when the Norwegian seismic survey vessel Malene Ostervold, commissioned by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to survey the southeastern waters 80 miles south of Greece’s Megisti Island (Turkish "Meis" and "Kastelorizo" in Italian), a few kilometers away from Turkey’s southern coast. The Norwegian vessel was escorted by the Turkish navy’s TCG Gediz, an Oliver Hazard Perry G-class, 4,100-ton frigate (Hurriyet, November 16).

According to the Greek general staff, the PG Polemistes gunboat was sent to the area to impress "that this sort of research requires permission from Greek authorities," and the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Norway’s ambassador to Greece Sverre Stub to lodge a protest (Athinaiko Praktoreiho Eihdiseohn, November 15). After Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis called her Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Store, the two vessels left the area (Hurriyet, November 15).

The departure of the two boats did not end the dispute, however, as Greece claims the area as part of its continental shelf. Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Yeoryios (George) Koumoutsakos said:

Given that in accordance with the relevant provisions of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea [under which] a large section of this region includes the Greek continental shelf, the Foreign Ministry, in constant communication and coordination with the Defense Ministry, proceeded yesterday to make a demarche to the Norwegian and Turkish ambassadors in Athens, as well as to the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, on the level of assistant deputy undersecretary for foreign affairs (
The Turkish Foreign Ministry countered that "the zone where the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, contracted the Norwegian ship M/V Malene Ostervold [to carry out] geophysics research" is under Turkish sovereign maritime authority (Hurriyet, November 16).

Megisti, Greece’s easternmost island, is roughly two miles off Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast and the town of Kas, about 68 miles east of Rhodes, and is the largest of the Dodecanese Archipelago, a cluster of 12 larger and 150 smaller islands and islets. When conflicting assertions of maritime sovereignty are added in, the islands represent a convoluted cartographical and legalistic conundrum of overlapping and contradictory claims and counterclaims, made worse by the lack of a comprehensive legal formula delineating the area. Further complicating the picture, Greece ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1995, while Turkey has not.

UNCLOS provides maritime nations with a 12-nautical-mile definition of territorial waters, as well as defining "archipelagic waters," but both definitions fall by the wayside in the Aegean. While Greece maintains a territorial limit of six miles around its approximately 2,000 Aegean islands and islets, Athens has consistently maintained it has the right to extend its territorial waters to the 12 mile limit as defined by UNCLOS, while Turkey has said such an extension would be a cause for war. Under UNCLOS Article 22, the Mediterranean is defined as a "semi-enclosed sea," with competing claims by 21 coastal states with delimited sovereign rights over exclusive maritime economic zones, which includes Turkey’s and Greece’s overlapping Aegean maritime, air, territorial, and boundary disputes.

Last year Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus were involved in a dispute over oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean after Nicosia, in its first attempt to tap speculated deepwater reserves, tendered 11 offshore blocs, totaling nearly 27,000 square miles of its southern Mediterranean waters, for bidding, leading to protests from Ankara (EDM, March 21, 2007).

Athens’ protest has already caused Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to caution its commercial fleet to avoid contested maritime zones, warning:

Norwegian authorities do not take a position on any unresolved issues of maritime delimitation between third states. It is up to the states that have overlapping claims in a maritime area to settle outstanding issues and achieve agreement on boundaries, on the basis of the law of the sea.
Norwegian authorities do not have the power to issue instructions to Norwegian companies or vessels engaged in activities in other states’ maritime areas of jurisdiction. The companies concerned, however, have the responsibility to ensure that they have all necessary authorizations. In potentially disputed areas there are particular grounds to exercise caution and restraint ("Norsk skip i Midelhavet,", November 15).
Greek-Turkish relations have deep historical precedents for their turbulence, but ironically recent relations between Athens and Ankara have greatly improved with Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis earlier in the year making the first visit to Turkey by a Greek premier in nearly 50 years. While the search for indigenous hydrocarbon resources is understandable, geological surveys up to now seem to indicate that those of both countries are modest at best.

Both Athens and Ankara might pause to reread the EIA’s relevant country briefs, which noted of Greece, "Improved relations with neighboring states could help Greece achieve its goal of becoming a major regional energy hub," while commenting about Turkey, "Turkey lacks significant domestic energy resources. However, its location makes the country an important energy transit country…" Transit nations have the "inside track" in negotiating with energy-exporting nations for both transit fees and deliveries, which are also a more certain bet than wildcat drilling at a time of falling energy prices during a global economic slowdown.

If, however, nationalists are looking to rattle sabers, then an opportunity will present itself early next year, when in January an Energy Exeter jack-up rig is mobilized from the North Sea to drill a well in Greece’s Aegean waters (Lloyd’s List, November 17). If history is any guide, the rig will likely produce only empty boreholes and heightened tension.