Greece must act on gas discoveries, ties with Israel; TAP ok but others control it, lacks strategic power

By Charles J. Mouratides

CHI Executive Director

It’s great that the announced Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will transport Azerbaijani natural gas to Italy through Northern Greece and Albania.

However, we are anxious to hear when the Greek government will plunge decisively in its own territorial waters, and drill in the Eastern Mediterranean for gas production following discoveries by Israel more than five years ago.

Our concern is that the good news about TAP, announced in enthusiastic statements by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, may be used as another excuse to continue doing nothing about energy resources that are much more  important to Greece strategically and financially.

Yes, TAP does contribute to solving Western Europe’s strategic problem, its dependence on Russian energy from Siberia. In the process, TAP throws some comparatively small benefits to Greece.

The question is, what dramatic action will solve Greece’s energy and economic problems? Certainly not a pipeline designed to take care of Western Europe.

First let’s see what else TAP means.

According to the Prime Minister: Greece worked hard and gained routing of the pipeline which was originally planned to travel via Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria – the so-called Nabucco route.

Route of Trans Adriatic Pipeline from where the line begins in Greece and where it ends in Italy

The fact: Shah Deniz consortium’s shareholders, suppliers of Azerbaijani gas, are the ones who decided – based primarily on cost and somewhat on technical considerations – to use the TAP route instead of Nabucco. I guess we have (!) to praise the governments of Greece and Albania for not creating obstacles.

Key info not in government announcement: Turkey is the bridge to Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas, regardless which pipeline route to Europe the consortium has chosen. Gas will be transported from the Caspian Sea through Turkey’s Trans Anatolian pipeline to Greece’s Kipoi, on the Turkish border.

In other words, TAP’s operation will forever depend on Turkey’s Balkan and Middle East geopolitical ambitions and domestic conflicts. A recent example is how the Russians turned off natural gas supplies to Europe simply by turning off the spigot to Ukraine because of political conflicts with the Ukrainians.

TAP is realistically expected to create jobs both during construction, which begins in 2015, and during provision of gas beginning 2019. In any case, the pipeline will help the Greek economy. It is good to have it in addition to Greece’s important major card, Greek energy resources.

But Greece consistently delays starting action on its major economic card, the Eastern Mediterranean and Ionian gas fields. This resource is estimated to be worth $1.7 trillion just from the Cretan and Ionian seas.

The most tested energy resource is the Eastern Mediterranean, and the ally to explore it with, is right there – Israel. It is an ally who a) has long-term geostrategic needs in the Eastern Mediterranean and thus the incentive to nurture a strong alliance with Greece; b) has no direct political, territorial, or military differences with Greece, and c) has the know-how and the power to support Greece to drill gas and install and safeguard sea platforms.

Here are 3 acts Greece cannot afford to keep putting off and must start now:

1.    Declare its Exclusive Economic Zone (AOZ), just like Cyprus did it. Israel has already included Greece’s AOZ in maps it distributed internationally.

The importance of such an action is even greater when one considers other issues involving AOZ, such as tourism and fishing rights.

2.    Seize the times. Now is the time to project and pursue a bold Greek geostrategic vision.

The only country with military and political muscle consistently challenging Greece’s historic rights in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean is Turkey. But the Turkish government now has its own acute problems. It is being challenged on various fronts: Prime Minister Erdogan’s slide to Islamism has slammed against Turkey’s army and the Kemalists/secularists.

Second, the 20+million Kurds, envisioning an independent Kurdistan, will not hesitate to join Kurds in adjacent countries if they detect an opening. Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds are practically autonomous already.

Across the border, Erdogan faces his one-time pal, now adversary, President al-Assad, as Syria’s raging war is spilling over into Turkey. Internationally, Erdogan’s closeness to Egypt’s deposed fundamentalists, Gaza’s Hamas, and his flirting with Iran have left a bitter taste among Americans and Israelis.

Clearly, this is an environment in which Greece can pursue national claims already accepted by leading international players and based on established international principles and treaties.

3.    Finally, Greece must decisively strengthen its military, economic and technology alliance with Israel; establish a partnership with quick-moving Israel on hydrocarbon exploration, drilling and distribution; and commit itself to champion issues facing Israel internationally. The drive to lable Israeli products for rejection by EU consumers is such an issue.

Israel is already drawing hydrocarbons from fields in it’s AOZ. The Tamar field, discovered in 2009, reportedly began delivery March, 2013. Drilling in the newer field, mammoth Leviathan, believed to be near Cypriot and Greek waters, will start soon. For Greece, exploration has determined that equally rich are deposits off southern Crete and Gavdos island.

A single action such as TAP in Northern Greece, is not to be confused with strategy. On the other hand, following the strategy outlined above means that Greece is adopting “Greek-friendly” politics and an East Mediterranean orientation. It means Greece places this region ahead of other political options.

There is a good reason why the U.S., Russia, the EU countries, Iran and others are frantically seeking proxy nations for a foothold in Eastern Mediterranean, and why the sea has become infested with their battleships and submarines.

Eastern Mediterranean is where world influence is exercised and produces results. That’s where coveted resources are. That’s where the money and the future are.

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