In the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are in the midst of a bitter joust, on the precipice of violence, over rights to drill for natural gas. That’s despite the fact that gas is a fossil fuel that is neither environmentally sustainable nor a lucrative business proposition for the region. The parties involved can kill two birds with one stone by calling a moratorium on the exploitation of new hydrocarbon reserves in the Hellenic Trench, where the gas fields lie. This would eradicate the source of conflict as well as serve Europe’s long-term goal to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
The notion of a drilling ban—which could begin with a two-year moratorium on all undersea energy exploration—isn’t sheer fancy, as much of the Western and Central Mediterranean is already off limits to gas and oil exploration, on diverse environmental grounds. In the Aegean, most hydrocarbon exploration has been prohibited in the sea shared by Greece and Turkey since 1976.
Foremost, new gas and oil production undermines the aims of the United Nations’ Paris climate treaty to curb global warming by 2050; and it also poses an immediate threat to the sea’s highly sensitive marine environment. Moreover, the economic prospects of deep-water natural gas are extremely poor, even if gas bounces back from the dizzying price collapse prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Should drilling ever really happen in the Hellenic Trench—a 400-mile-long, 17,000-foot-deep marine canyon that stretches from northwestern Greece to southernmost Turkey—the area would surely become the burial site of billions in stranded assets, say experts.
In declaring the trench a protected area, its bordering countries—the European Union nations Greece and Cyprus, as well as Turkey—would be following in the footsteps of France, Italy, and Croatia. In 2016 France led the way by announcing a moratorium on drilling in all French seas—in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the waters of French territories abroad. All currently licensed extraction will be terminated by 2040. France argued that hydrocarbon mining contradicted the global effort to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use, which was inscribed into law in the Paris climate agreement a year earlier.
At the time, Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot underscored the reasoning of climate scientists across the globe: “80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels must remain below the Earth’s surface if we want to respect the Paris climate treaty.”
New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and 11 U.S. states have also followed suit. Spain’s measure, when approved this year by parliament as expected, will ban all new coal, oil, and gas extraction immediately, and end direct subsidies for fossil fuels. The European Investment Bank will stop investing in fossil fuel-related projects as of the end of 2021.
The countries of the Eastern Mediterranean are also responsible for curbing global warming. All of them, with the notable exception of Turkey, have signed the Paris agreement and have emissions-reduction schedules. Moreover, Greece and Cyprus will be part of the EU’s drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 55 percent by 2030, should this benchmark be turned into law, as expected. Cyprus is already way behind on its targets and faces EU fines should it not catch up.
Furthermore, the natural gas lobby’s claim that gas is a green-tinged “bridge” energy on the road to a zero-carbon world has never rung so phony. A wide array of recent studies show that natural gas, which consists mostly of methane, can be significantly more harmful to the climate than previously thought. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that in the first two decades after its release is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. Methane is released during the extraction, transport, and processing of natural gas and its export form, liquefied natural gas.
Environmental degradation is another sound reason not to drill. Drilling’s impact on the Mediterranean’s natural ecosystems figured significantly in the bans imposed in the Western seas and apply no less to the fragile Eastern Mediterranean. (The bans in place were driven by environmentalists and the tourism branch, the latter not wanting drill rigs or their detritus befouling seaside resorts.)
The Hellenic Trench is a deep-water sanctuary of unique and threatened marine mammals, such as sperm whales, fin whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, dolphins, Mediterranean monk seals, and loggerhead sea turtles. In 2018, 100 world-renowned scientists and environmental associations wrote a declaration pleading with Athens to call off exploration of the trench. Diverse aquatic species “in the…