Leaders of Greece, Israel, Cyprus to sign gas pipeline deal

$6 billion project to pipe gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to southern Europe is fraught with political and logistical complexities.

ATHENS - Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades were set Thursday to sign an agreement for a huge pipeline project designed to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

The move comes amid tensions with Turkey over its own activities in the area and a contentious maritime deal with Libya expanding Ankara's claims over a large gas-rich area of the sea.

The 2,000-kilometre EastMed pipeline will be able to transfer between nine and 12 billion cubic metres a year from offshore gas reserves between Israel and Cyprus to Greece, and then on to Italy and other southeastern European countries.

As now designed, the pipeline would run from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves to Cyprus, Crete and the Greek mainland. An overland pipeline to northwestern Greece and another planned undersea pipeline would carry the gas to Italy.

The pipeline is intended to provide an alternative gas source for energy-hungry Europe, which is currently largely dependent on supplies from Russia and the Caucasus region. The project, with a rough budget of $6 billion, is expected to satisfy about 10% of the European Union's natural gas needs. But it is also fraught with political and logistical complexities.

The discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has sparked a scramble for the energy riches and a row between Cyprus and Turkey

Cyprus is divided into a Greek Cypriot south, where the island nation's internationally recognized government is located, and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north backed by Turkey. The split followed a 1974 Turkish invasion after an aborted coup aiming to bring Cyprus under Greek rule.

Turkey already faces European Union sanctions over ships searching for oil and gas off Cyprus, whose government in Nicosia is not recognised by Ankara.

The Cypriot government meanwhile has licensed Italian energy company Eni, France's Total, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Noble Energy to carry out exploratory hydrocarbons drilling in the country's offshore economic zone.

Anastasiades has said the EastMed pipeline, while not aimed against Turkey, affirms that Greece and Cyprus hold sovereign rights to the waters they control.

The EastMed project is expected to make Cyprus, Greece and Israel key links in Europe's energy supply chain, while it also aims to stymie Turkey's effort to extend its influence in the eastern Mediterranean region.

'Peace and cooperation'

Turkey is also laying claim to large tracts under Greek control in the Aegean Sea and off the Greek island of Crete. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that no project in the area can proceed without his country's consent following the maritime border agreement that Ankara signed with Libya's Tripoli-based government.

Greece responded angrily to the Turkey-Libya deal struck in November, expelling the Libyan ambassador and urging the UN to condemn it. Part of the agreement sets a maritime boundary between the two countries, which Greece says fails to take into account the island of Crete.

Erdogan said in November he envisaged joint energy exploration activities with Libya in the eastern Mediterranean.

His government insists the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - recognised only by Ankara - has the right to explore around the entire island. It says Turkey's own energy explorations off Cyprus are intended to ensure that Turkish Cypriots get their fair share of the profits from the island's gas reserves.

The EastMed alliance "is of enormous importance to the state of Israel's energy future and its development into an energy power and also from the point of view of stability in the region," Netanyahu said in a statement issued as he left Israel for Greece Thursday.

Greek energy minister Kostis Hatzidakis called it "a project of peace and cooperation" despite "Turkish threats".

Avinoam Idan, a former Israeli government security official who is now a geostrategy expert at Haifa University, said of the deal: "It's important for Israel, it's important for the transit countries, Greece and Cyprus, and of course Europe".

As the new source of energy would not compete with Russian supplies to the EU, "there is no reason to see it as a big change in the geopolitical dynamic in Europe's energy market", he told AFP news agency.

The Greek economic daily Kathimerini said Wednesday Athens and Nicosia had been in a hurry to finalise EastMed "to counter any attempt by the Turkish neighbour to stop the project".

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said the pipeline would take up to seven years to build and that its advantages include being less vulnerable to sabotage and not crossing many national borders to reach markets.

Anastasiades said in an New Year's Day interview with Cyprus' Phileleftheros newspaper that the construction agreement's signing “sends messages in every direction.”

"Especially under current conditions, it demonstrates the strong political will of the countries involved, as well as the European Union, that they don’t accept Turkey’s unlawful actions,” Anastasiades said.