As the European Union moves to diversify its energy supply, new offshore gas reserves have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. In the name of energy security, the EU is advancing the East Med pipeline as one of its Projects of Common Interest, neglecting international law and regional conventions as well as the EU’s own directives for environmental protection.


Western Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. Source: NASA

Dash for Gas

In a bid to reduce dependence on Russian gas, the EU is increasing gas imports from the Caucasus and Mediterranean through a Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) connecting non-EU states to Europe by pipeline. In October 2013, the European Commission identified 15 SGC related Projects of Common Interest (PCIs) to benefit from funding, fast-tracking of licenses and regulatory assistance. They benefit foreign operators who may invest, operate and transit through a pipeline, bypassing EU competition restrictions. The objective of PCIs is to diversify energy sources and secure supply.

Following its support for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which began construction in April 2015 to deliver an additional 16 billion cubic meters gas from Azerbaijan by 2019, the EU is considering funding an Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (East Med) pipeline to import gas from the Mediterranean, where substantial reserves have been discovered.

The U.S. company Noble Energy, with Israeli partner Delek Group, discovered the largest offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean Tamar (ten trillion cubic feet) in 2009 and Leviathan (estimated at 22 trillion cubic feet) in 2010. Production for domestic use started on Tamar in 2013 and Leviathan gas could be exported by 2018.

Since 2004, Israel has also been drilling the smaller Mari-B and Noa gas fields which overlap with Palestine’s Gaza Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and in doing so is already exploiting overlapping sub-sea Palestinian reserves.


In addition, the Gaza marine field, estimated at around 1.4 trillion cubic feet, was discovered in 2000 by British Gas Group (BGG). While sufficient to allow energy independence from Israel, the initial agreement between the Palestinian Authority and BGG has been hindered due to political and commercial interference by the Israeli government and the Noble Energy-Delek consortium.

Cyprus’ offshore gas reserves are the second largest in the region. In 2011, Noble Energy discovered an estimated 4.5 trillion cubic feet of offshore gas in its Aphrodite field. However, drilling has been held back due to Turkey disputing ownership of reserves and while Aphrodite could provide Cyprus with sufficient reserves for security of supply, it isn’t enough to become a major exporter.

“The quantities of gas discovered thus far in the East Med are modest, and whilst they can enhance energy security for the parties concerned, they will not constitute an alternative source of supply for the EU due to commercial, technical and political difficulties.” – Karen Ayat at Natural Gas Europe

For now, only Israel’s reserves are sufficient for export and the least difficult short-term option is for Israeli gas to be exported to Greece via Cyprus. With its Greek and Cypriot partners, Israel has been lobbying the EU for support through the Greek Energy Forum (GEF) – a consortium consisting of European Commission, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli officials and energy sector representatives promoting the East Med pipeline.

The East Med pipeline was listed as a PCI in October 2013. The description includes Israel as a source of supply, indicating that the EU is motivated more by Israeli imports considering reserves are already sufficient for exportation, while Cyprus’ reserves are as yet insufficient for export.


Israel Defense Forces on the Mediterranean Sea. Source: Israel Defense Forces

In late 2014, the East Med PCI was awarded conditional support by the European Commission, which is conducting a feasibility study on the massive costs due to the distance the pipeline would have to cover – 1,200 km over water up to 2,000 meters deep.

Investment was the main topic at the 2030 EU Energy Security: the role of the Eastern Mediterranean conference in December 2014, organized by the GEF, and hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). It is the responsibility of EU institutions, such as the EESC, to promote directives for environmental protection in the interests of Europe, but their contribution was mostly limited to speculating on reducing gas prices for consumers.

According to Michael Leigh from the German Marshall Fund, the East Med pipeline is unviable as the high exploration, extraction and transport costs would end up being paid by European consumers. When asked whether the EU should go ahead with its ambitions to import Mediterranean gas, Karen Ayat at Natural Gas Europe replied: “The quantities of gas discovered thus far in the East Med are modest, and while they can enhance energy security for the parties concerned, they will not constitute an alternative source of supply for the EU due to commercial, technical and political difficulties.”

If it is unlikely to meet the stated objective of PCIs, that is to provide energy security, then the East Med pipeline should not have been identified as a PCI. EU support for the development of a regional energy market including non-member states such as Turkey and Israel also raises questions on EU foreign policy in relation to international law.

The Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: […] the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law. So says the 2009 EU Lisbon Treaty. By this logic, EU funded energy initiatives, such as the Projects of Common Interest with non-EU states, should take into account membership of relevant international and regional conventions for conflict resolution and environmental protection – like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Sea (Barcelona Convention).

The development of an eastern Mediterranean gas market has been held back by political instability and lack of cooperation, issues which should not be disregarded by the EU in its ambition for energy security. The EU must rely on bilateral cooperation with countries such as Turkey and Israel considering both have ongoing disputes with their respective neighbours over offshore reserves – and are also the only two eastern Mediterranean states not to have signed UNCLOS.


In March 2012, The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) rallied on the Mediterranean Sea between the Gaza seaport and Beit Lahia to protest Israeli naval attacks on Palestinian fishermen and demand the return of fishing boats seized by Israel. Source: Joe Catron/Flickr

In Turkey’s case the dispute is over the sovereignty of gas reserves within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of EU member state Cyprus, whose northern side is illegally occupied by Turkey. Cyprus has already agreed on EEZ boundaries with fellow UNCLOS signatories Lebanon and Egypt, but has dismissed Turkey’s call for sovereignty to be agreed on in relation to a bilateral political settlement. This stalemate has held back Turkish plans for a pipeline from Israel to Turkey, as it would have to pass through Cyprus’ EEZ which Turkey does not recognize.

Israel has gone further in disregarding the sovereignty of its neighbor’s gas reserves. Its illegal military blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007 can be explained by the Gaza marine gas field. The presence of the Israeli navy in the Gaza EEZ, which regularly fires on fishermen who cannot work beyond 8-10 miles from the shore, also prevents Palestinians from accessing their offshore gas reserves. Before signing UNCLOS, the Palestinian Authority was already seeking to agree on its EEZ borders in the framework of UNCLOS, but Israel has refused to use the mechanism before national borders are settled.

Israel’s illegal military blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007 can be explained by the Gaza marine gas field.

With Turkey and Israel not signed up to UNCLOS, or made use of its mechanisms, it can only indicate those states’ unwillingness to resolve their respective disputes with their neighbors under international law. These are issues which the EU should, but does not, address with these partners through foreign policy initiatives such as PCIs.

No Protection for the Sea

The offshore nature of the East Med pipeline raises questions on the extent to which environmental factors and in particular relevant EU directives are taken into account in PCIs, and how these might be applied where non-member states are involved.

Samuele Furfari, writing in favor of Mediterranean natural gas exploitation in a 2014 report by the Egmont Institute and Atlantic Council, highlighted the need for regulation ensuring environmental protection, based on the Barcelona Convention, to be respected in a regional gas market. While the Barcelona Convention has been signed by all states in the eastern Mediterranean, events in recent years show that it has been insufficient to compel signatory states to cooperate and behave responsibly.

Take for example the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, both of whom ratified the Barcelona Convention in 1977 and 2005. In July 2006, Israel’s air force bombed the coastal power plant at Jiyeh, south of Beirut, causing 15,000 tons of oil to spill into the sea along 150-210 km of coastline.

Prevention of ecological disasters and the ‘polluter pays’ principle are part of the convention, but Lebanon was not prepared for dealing with such a disaster and Israel has repeatedly dismissed its responsibility to clean up. Israel refused to comply with the 2006 United Nations resolution 61/194 calling for it to compensate Lebanon for the environmental damage, and with the December 2014 UN General Assembly resolution calling on it to compensate Lebanon $850 million in damages.

Cooperation between stakeholders in a regional energy market is a fundamental element for regional stability and the prevention of environmental disasters. If international law and conventions such as UNCLOS and the Barcelona Convention are not respected in the region, the EU must itself ensure environmental protection, not only in theory but also in practice through foreign policy tools such as the PCIs.


Oil skimming vessels work around the clock at the site of the British Petroleum oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Biloxi, US, 2010. Source: Spc. Casey Ware /Flickr

EU Directives Ignored

According to regulation, PCIs may be bound to respect certain EU directives, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2011/92, based on the 1991 UN Espoo Convention ratified by all EU member states and, among others, Azerbaijan – the source of offshore gas for the TANAP pipeline.

The EIA requires that trans-boundary EU member states cooperate on an environmental impact assessment before building infrastructure. But since EU directives do not apply to non-member states such as Azerbaijan, it is unclear if the EIA applied to the onshore TANAP PCI. More importantly, how would the EIA be applied to the offshore East Med PCI and Israel, which in any case has not signed the Espoo Convention?

Highly relevant to the East Med pipeline, but not taken into account in the PCIs, is Directive 2013/30/EU on the safety of off- shore oil and gas operations – the European Parliament’s response to the European Commission’s call for legislation in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico 2010 disaster caused by British Petroleum (BP) negligence on its Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform.

It obliges EU member state operators and regulators to prevent and limit fallout of major accidents through risk assessment and disaster management preparation by attributing to them environmental liability, including the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Cooperation between member states and coordination between regulators are fundamental provisions applicable to all parties.


Oil spill on beach, Lebanon. Source: Ze Nahla

To be effective in the Mediterranean, Directive 2013/30/EU would have to be applied to partner states and foreign operators. In the case of the East Med pipeline it should apply to Israeli regulators as well as those non- European operators present in the region, such as the U.S. company Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek.

After initially agreeing to discuss the East Med PCI, when questioned on whether such directives would be taken into account and how they would include non-EU partners, European officials working on the PCI and the Greek Energy Forum would not comment.

As foreign policy tools, PCIs should abide by the Lisbon Treaty by taking into account international law and conventions for conflict resolution and environmental protection. At the very least, they should enforce EU directives for environmental protection.

Writer: Nadim Keith is an independent researcher of EU foreign policy with a special interest in the energy sector. He has an MA in International Studies and an M2 in International Development.

This feature appeared in Issue #16 (Summer 2015) of Revolve Magazine on pages 60-67