The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) has been established as an international body in Cairo at the beginning of this year, coinciding with the intensity of rivalry between the Mediterranean countries over natural gas exploration and extraction in the region. The Forum aims to establish a regional gas market that serves the interests of the members by ensuring supply and demand, optimizing resource development, rationalizing the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices and improving trade relations. This was the idea that Egypt, Greece and Cyprus called for at the very beginning.
In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the East Mediterranean basin area could hold about 3.5 trillion cubic meters of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil. This was before later studies in 2017 indicated the discovery of more than three trillion cubic meters of gas in the region, with the possibility of triple-double increase of these discoveries. Eni, the Italian oil company responsible for drilling operations at some of the natural gas sites found in the region, suggested that there could be a natural gas surplus of 40-50 billion cubic meters per year, available for export. Despite that the current level of results in the region hardly reaches 1.5% of the world’s natural gas resources; this remains a significant percentage within the territory for many political and economic considerations.
The Forum includes all East Mediterranean countries, with a total of seven member states, except the Republic of Turkey that is viewed as a source of threat by EMGF members.
Inception of the EMGF Idea
At first, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus agreed to establish an East Mediterranean Gas Forum in October 2018. This came before the energy ministers of the seven states met in Cairo, on 14 and 15 January 2019, to discuss the establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) at the invitation of Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tariq al-Mulla. They announced their intention to respect the rights of members regarding their natural resources in accordance with the principles of international law, and to support their efforts to benefit from their oil and gas reserves in order to secure their energy needs for the well-being of their peoples. In addition, they explained the positive impact on the energy sector and economic development in the region.
The ministers agreed that the main objectives of the EMGF will include, but not limited to, the following[i]:
- To establish a regional gas market that serves the interests of the members by ensuring supply and demand, optimizing resource development, rationalizing the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices and improving trade relations.
- To ensure the supply and demand for members while optimizing resource development, ensuring the efficient use of existing and new infrastructure with competitive pricing and improved trade relations.
- To strengthen cooperation by creating systematic dialogue and formulating common regional policies on natural gas, including regional gas policies.
- To deepen awareness of the interdependence and benefits that can be gained from cooperation and dialogue among members, in accordance with the principles of international law.
- To support members who have gas reserves and who are current gas producers in the region to capitalize on their existing and future reserves by enhancing their cooperation with the parties of consumption and transit in the region, taking advantage of existing infrastructure and developing more infrastructure options to accommodate current and future discoveries.
- Assisting consuming countries in securing their needs and encouraging their cooperation with the transit countries to develop gas policies in the region, thus enabling the establishment of a sustainable partnership between the actors at all stages of the gas industry
- Ensuring sustainability and environmental considerations when it comes to gas discoveries, production, transportation and infrastructure construction, as well as improving the integration of gas and other energy sources, particularly renewable energy and electricity networks.
EMGF to Guarantee the Rights of Members
The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was established following the regional efforts led by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, and particularly after the signing by the Forum’s member states—including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Italy—and by major companies such as Eni and ExxonMobil. In addition, France and the United States officially asked to join the EMGF, as a member and permanent observer respectively.
Greek Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis also invited the EMGF members to work to bring Turkey into the fold provided Ankara respects international law. This comes after Turkey has escalated tensions in the Mediterranean region due to its legally-dubious gas exploration activities off the Cypriot coast and its maritime border agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. Accordingly, this led to political clashes between Turkey and the interests of EMGF member states, particularly Greece whose political relations with Turkey have not been harmed to this extent since the late twentieth century.
For its part, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry described the Forum as an ‘unrealistic initiative’ started for ‘political motives’ designed to shut Ankara out of the East Mediterranean gas rush. The Turkish President also announced that Turkey would push ahead with its gas exploration efforts and begin drilling as soon as possible this year.[ii]
Greek-Turkish Rivalry over Gas Rights
There is growing fear of possible military confrontation between Greece and Turkey, if the latter continued gas-drilling in the marine areas it considers part of its continental shelf area. However, Greece, together with the EMGF member states, considers these Turkish claims illegitimate as they deprive the Greek Islands of their continental shelf area, and of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), even territorial waters. This may result in the need for a move to prevent violation of Greece’s sovereign rights.
The EMGF member states condemned the Ankara-Tripoli Maritime Agreement signed in November 2019 of infringement upon the sovereign rights of some member states, particularly Greece, in terms of territorial waters. In addition, the Cyprus dispute is a deeply complex issue because of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, comprising the northern portion of the island, which has been only declared by Turkey with no international recognition. The current reality is that Turkish research drilling is occurring without interruption in Cypriot waters. The European Union (EU) remains unable to play a decisive political role in the region and is attempting to accommodate the diplomatic pressure of Athens and Nicosia with its continued economic cooperation with Ankara. If Turkish vessels find natural gas in the EZZ of Cyprus, which has not yet happened, the crisis will enter a new phase, with unpredictable consequences.[iii]
Egyptian Support for Greece
Under these escalating circumstances, it appears that Egypt is Greece’s most important ally in this conflict. Several times during past years, Egypt has diplomatically defied the continuous attempts by Turkey to explore for gas in Mediterranean areas, which are not owned by Turkey. It was the effort that markedly succeeded in restricting and slowing down Erdogan’s unbridled expansionary ambitions. The credit for launching the EMGF, after being just an idea, goes to the shared vision between Egypt and Greece, helping the Forum make a realistic, and internationally recognized, contribution in guaranteeing the rights of member countries. Efforts of mutual cooperation between Egypt and Greece have been crowned by them signing the Maritime Border Delimitation Agreement that came in direct conflict with Turkey’s attempts to gain international recognition for its controversial border delimitation agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya.
Challenges to the Future of East Mediterranean Region
Still, many of the determinants of future cooperation in the East Mediterranean region are unpredictable. This is due to the accelerating pace of gas discoveries in the region and the inability to accurately estimate the total amount of gas reserves at each territory within the region. In addition, not all operations of development, export and transfer to Europe have been agreed yet. However, no doubt that the establishment of EMGF and the recent signing of the Maritime Border Delimitation Agreement between Egypt and Greece, open up a vast field for the development and optimum utilization of natural resources for the interest of their peoples. But the major obstacle continues to be the intransigent stance of Turkey which shows no respect to the International Law of Maritime Border Delimitation and acts unilaterally in opposition to all EMGF members, particularly to Egypt and Greece.