Ongoing tension between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over offshore gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean has reached a new high after Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) on Wednesday signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement.
The KKTC, which is recognized only by Turkey, has marked its marine borders with Turkey and will issue licenses for offshore oil and gas drilling in response to a similar move by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot half of the island.
The signing of the agreement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and KKTC President Derviş Eroğlu in New York comes only a day after the Greek Cypriot government on Tuesday said drilling had begun in a southeastern offshore block, adjoining a gas field in Israeli waters reputed to be the world's largest find of the past decade. Erdoğan described the offshore drilling by Greek Cyprus and Turkey's estranged ally Israel as “madness” before signing the deal with Eroğlu to clear the path for Turkish exploration off northern Cyprus.
“We had previously brought it to the international community’s attention in a clear manner … that if the Greek Cypriots started drilling, we would take a number of concrete steps together with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Erdoğan said after signing the agreement.
“To reflect this commitment, Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus today in New York have signed a continental shelf agreement,” he said.
The agreement needs to be ratified by the parliaments of Turkey and the KKTC in order to be put into force.
“The agreement delineates a part of Turkey’s and the KKTC’s continental shelves in the Eastern Mediterranean with a line constructed by 27 coordinates determined on the basis of international law and equitable principles,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a written statement released late on Wednesday, soon after the signing of the agreement.
“The agreement takes into account the legitimate, equal and inherent rights of the Turkish Cypriots like those of the Greek Cypriots over the whole continental shelf of the island,” it added.
According to the statement, the next step is the issuance of the licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves around the island to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) by the KKTC government.
The ministry reiterated Turkey’s call on Greek Cyprus to stop its drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean, while, however, failing to note whether Turkey and the KKTC would still press ahead with their plans if Greek Cyprus stopped its activities.
Speaking in New York, Erdoğan also threatened to blacklist international oil and gas firms working with Greek Cyprus on the Mediterranean exploration and stop them from participating in energy projects in Turkey.
Turkey’s Ministry of Energy is drawing up sanctions on companies that meet the criteria, Erdoğan said.
Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, speaking to the Anatolia news agency in Stuttgart late on Wednesday, said companies involved in offshore exploration in the disputed waters are already on a “black list.”
Yıldız indicated that such companies will not be allowed to work on projects in Turkey either.
Greek Cyprus and Greece were swift to denounce the agreement between Turkey and the KKTC as illegal. “Turkey has committed yet another illegal act by signing an agreement with an illegal entity, such is the pseudo-state, which has been condemned by UN resolutions,” Greek Cypriot government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said in a statement.
“Turkey is attempting to prevent the Republic of Cyprus from exercising a self-evident right, one which is acknowledged by the international community, which asks that Turkey respect international legality. Unfortunately, Turkey persists in acting illegally,” Stefanou asserted.
Turkey’s neighbor and historic rival, Greece, reiterated its criticism of the pact. “This move from Turkey is against international law and UN Security Council decisions. The so-called ‘deal’ is invalid and groundless,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Turkey has decided to begin its own gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and boost its military presence in the region after the Greek Cypriot government vowed to go ahead with its plans to drill for gas in Cyprus’ south.
Greek Cyprus has signed agreements to delineate undersea borders in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. A US company licensed by the Greek Cypriot government to drill for gas in the south of Cyprus, Noble Energy, operates with its Israeli partner, Delek.
In December 2010, Noble Energy announced that a gas reserve of 16 trillion cubic feet had been discovered off the coast of Israel, estimated to be worth more than $95 billion. Noble Energy owns nearly 40 percent of the prospective discovery in the Israeli section, alongside Israeli partners Delek Group Ltd. units Avner Oil and Gas LP and Delek Drilling LP (22.67 percent each).
Turkey opposes exploration of gas in the eastern Mediterranean, saying it has rights in the region as the biggest coastal state and that the Turkish Cypriots, who run a state that is not internationally recognized in the north of the island, should also be involved.
Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders have been in UN-backed talks to reunite the island, but no progress has been reported so far. “The Greek Cypriot administration and Israel are engaging in oil exploration madness in the Mediterranean,” Erdoğan said on Tuesday at a news conference after talks with US President Barack Obama.
The gas row further heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean after Turkey promised to send warships to protect vessels carrying aid to the Gaza Strip to prevent the repetition of a 2010 raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish-owned aid ship, which left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, suspended military agreements with Israel and promised to take measures to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean after Israel refused to apologize for the 2010 incident, bringing once-solid ties to a state of deep crisis.