FOR MONTHS Turkish drilling ships had scavenged the seabed of the eastern Mediterranean for energy sources, sailing into disputed waters and provoking a standoff with Cyprus, Greece and the EU. Yet it was in the murky depths of the Black Sea that Turkey ended up striking gas. On August 21st the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that a Turkish ship had found some 320 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas, the largest such discovery in Turkey’s history. The government hopes to launch production by 2023, the centenary of Ataturk’s creation of the modern Turkish state.
Mr Erdogan immediately heralded the find as the dawn of a “new era”, in which Turkey would eventually become a net energy exporter. (The country imports 98% of its gas.) That is a pipe dream. Analysts have serious doubts about the size of the field, which has not been independently verified, Turkey’s ability to extract the gas in as little as three years, and the project’s overall commercial viability. Offshore exploration is a costly business, and energy markets have been hobbled of late by declining demand and a glut of supply, which have combined to drive down the price of gas, making trickier fields unviable.
Although 320 bcm would be a decent amount, enough to fulfil Turkey’s gas demand for seven years, it would not end its reliance on outsiders. Investors have not bought into the hype. Turkey’s bruised currency, the lira, actually sank against the dollar right after Mr Erdogan’s announcement, when it became clear that earlier reports of a much bigger find had been wide of the mark.
Even so, the discovery still matters. Turkey’s long-term contracts with Russian and Iranian energy suppliers will expire in the coming few years. An offshore reserve would hand the country a useful bargaining chip in future negotiations over prices and volumes, says Mehmet Ogutcu, head of the Bosphorus Energy Club, an industry association. Turkey has already reduced its dependence on Russia, which supplied only 21% of its gas in the first half of this year, down from 52% in 2017. Instead, it has turned to Azerbaijan and to imports of liquefied natural gas. Black Sea gas will help strengthen such trends, says Brenda Shaffer, an energy expert at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank.
Any hopes that the discovery might calm tensions in the Mediterranean have already been dashed. On August 30th, after photos captured Greek soldiers arriving by ferry on Kastellorizo, a small Greek island at the heart of the dispute between the two NATO members, Turkey demanded that the troops withdraw. (Reports in the Greek media suggested the deployment was a routine rotation.) Turkey also said it would conduct new naval exercises near Cyprus. Greece had earlier made its own show of force, holding exercises with Cyprus, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, one of Turkey’s main regional rivals. Turkey’s air force announced that it had intercepted six Greek fighter jets heading towards Cyprus as part of the drills and forced them to turn back. The waters of the Med now seem no less flammable than the hydrocarbons below. “Any spark,” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said on August 25th, “could lead to a disaster.”