Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Border Focus: Eastern Mediterranean

What is disputed?

The problem in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea is that very few countries have established their maritime boundaries. As the extent of the quantities of gas that lies beneath the sea floor has become more clear, the potential for dispute has risen substantially. The existing territorial disputes between Israel and many of its neighbours and between Cyprus and Turkey also complicate the situation as land borders are typically considered a prerequisite for determining maritime boundaries.

Where is the oil and gas?

The US Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levantine Basin, which stretches from the Jordan River into the eastern Med, encompassing the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon and Syria, could contain up to 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The Israeli and surrounding waters seem to be the most prospective at the moment, or at least have received the most attention. BG discovered gas in the Palestinian Authority's territorial waters in 1999, but political issues means the find has not been exploited. American firm Noble Energy had more luck in their early explorations, striking gas in Israel's Mari-B field, which has been in production since 2004.

More recently, Israel, again through Noble Energy, has made substantial finds in the northern parts of its waters. The Tamar field, discovered in 2009 is thought to contain 178.4 billion cubic metres, while new results in December 2010 suggested the nearby Leviathan field may contain up to 450 billion cubic metres of gas, making it one of the largest gas discoveries in the last ten years.

These finds have the potential to radically alter Israel's energy position, but with Lebanon already making claims to some of the new finds, taking advantage of the new finds will not be easy.

Who owns the gas?

While the blocks that Israel have licensed to Noble are in Israeli waters, the question is whether the fields they have tapped into extend across the border to Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north.

The Mari-B license ends at the unfinalised Palestinian Authority-Israel border, but the gas field may stagger the border. Gaza is, needless to say, not receiving any revenues from the profits Noble and Israel are making. If the field does cross into Gaza's waters, Israel is required under international law to share the proceeds from the field, and while critics of Israel have pointed this out repeatedly, Gaza's lack of legal infrastructure and weak government has meant that its potential claim has been largely overlooked.

Lebanon claims that the Tamar field is partially within Lebanese territory, and in November 2010, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Qazanfar Roknabada, claimed that three-quarters of the Leviathan field actually belonged to Lebanon.

There is considerable difficulty in determining who owns the gas however, as Israel and Lebanon do not have a finalised land border, much less a maritime border. While any agreement on a land border is probably a long way off, what the line actually would be is fairly uncontroversial. It is likely to be very similar to the current working land border, which is the June 2000 UN Blue Line, which marked the territory from which Israel was required to withdraw.
Once the terminal land border point is determined, a maritime boundary can be determined. Given the flat, controlling coastline that exists along the eastern Mediterranean and given that there are few indentations and no significant islands to take account of, it seems the most sensible approach to determining a maritime boundary would be by constructing a line perpendicular to the coastline.

This issue, therefore, is not that it would be difficult to plot a maritime boundary line that would uphold the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea's aim of achieving 'equitable result': the difficulty is purely political.

Are other boundaries determined?

Other countries have had more success in determining their maritime boundaries, or at least outlining their claim to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). These, however, must be seen still as provisional until Israel and its neighbours determine their boundaries.

Cyprus , much to Turkey's annoyance, has taken the lead in settling its EEZ, and has made agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.

In 2003, Cyprus and Egypt signed the first agreement specifically devoted to the delimitation of an EEZ in the eastern Mediterranean. The boundary line is composed of seven segments, each based on equidistance, and no special circumstances have been taken into account to modify the boundary.

Cyprus also signed an EEZ agreement with Lebanon in 2007, but significantly, the Lebanese parliament has yet to ratify the agreement. Lebanon's hesitations are surprising, given that they have shown their dedication to determining their maritime boundaries in a number of other ways. In July 2010, Lebanon deposited with the UN Secretary General, charts and a list of geographical coordinates of points defining the southern limit of Lebanon's EEZ: in other words where they see their border with Israeli as lying. The deposit also gave coordinates for their EEZ with Cyprus.

In August 2010, the Lebanese parliament passed a law which established a committee to oversee exploration and drilling off Lebanon. Energy Minister Gibran Bassil said at the same time that Lebanon planned to outline its maritime sea borders and auction off rights to explore offshore gas reserves by 2012. Norway's Petroleum Geo-Services has already explored Lebanese waters and said they gained 'valuable information' on potential offshore gas reserves.

In December 2010, Israel and Cyprus signed an agreement defining their EEZs, and it committed the two sides to cooperating on any cross border resources that are found.

Syria does not appear to have made any maritime agreements with its neighbours. In November 2003, it repealed previous legislation and reduced the width of its territorial sea from 35 nautical miles to the more conventional 12 nm. The legislation established a 24 nm contiguous zone and an EEZ of 200 nm, although it did not give any specifications about its delimitations.

Turkey, also, has not made any maritime boundary agreements in the Mediterranean, and its offshore hydrocarbon exploration has been focused, until recently, on the Black Sea. 

What are the prospects for the future?

Israel looks set to reap the rewards of their early exploration efforts. Noble Energy has recently announced their 2011 programme for the region worth US$650 million, and said a large portion of that sum will go towards the development of the Tamar gas field. Appraisal of the Leviathan find will also continue.

Cyprus, it appears, is also ready to push ahead with exploration despite Ankara's misgivings, and after an unsuccessful first licensing round in 2007, they signed an agreement with Noble Energy for the 1,250 square mile Block 12 in 2008. The block lies 35 miles away from the Leviathan discovery and recent reports have suggested that Noble will start exploratory drilling the region in late 2011 or early 2012. Cyprus has said it will hold a second licensing round, although a date has not yet been set.

The wealth that Israel's finds are likely to bring has caused all of its neighbours to take a closer look at what they can claim. Before the Mubarak regime fell in February then minister of petroleum and mineral resources Sameh Fahmi was quoted by an Egyptian newspaper as saying the government is “studying the precise coordinates of the maritime borders in order to determine our share of the reserves” in late January 2011.

The main issue continues to be between Israel and Lebanon, however, and the tone of conversation between the two sides has been anything but amicable. Both sides have threatened the use of military force to maintain their hold on what they see to be their rightful resources, and there does not seem to be any likelihood of an agreement between the two sides in the near or medium term future.

For the full Border Focus, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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