London — Despite sitting on trillions of cubic meters of gas, the prospects for the wide-scale development of the East Mediterranean remain uncertain, with drilling plans on hold, a setback for Lebanon's fledgling exploration program and stubborn geopolitical challenges.
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Add to that the likelihood that within a decade -- or sooner -- European consumers will be far more exacting when it comes to the carbon footprint of natural gas, then it may eventually turn out that some of the region's gas will remain in the ground.
Recent disappointments have done nothing to improve the near term outlook either, and existing projects are struggling faced with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on gas demand and company spending.
Demand for gas from the giant Tamar and Leviathan producing gas fields offshore Israel is expected to fall by up to 9% over the next 18 months, while Egypt has not exported an LNG cargo since March.
2020 was also expected to mark the resumption of drilling offshore Cyprus, with dozens of wells planned, as IOCs looked to prove there was enough gas for a significant Cypriot industry to emerge.
But activity has all but ground to a halt, with drilling by players such as France's Total, Italy's Eni and the US' ExxonMobil postponed until at least next year.
Meanwhile, a first well offshore Lebanon came up dry, triggering fears that any offshore gas development there could be a non-starter.
The only ongoing drilling activity of note, in fact, is by Turkey's state-owned TPAO in Cyprus' Block 6, which has been denounced by the international community, threatening further the fragile geopolitical balance in the region.
Analysts remain skeptical of major new developments in the region given the many challenges it still faces and the recent collapse in global gas prices.
"I was very dubious about East Mediterranean gas even at pre-2019 prices. Now forget it," leading gas analyst Jonathan Stern from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies told S&P Global Platts.
Stern said that by the time any new East Mediterranean gas would theoretically be ready to export to Europe, possibly only as soon as the late 2020s, CO2 constraints would add further costs and complexity.
"East Mediterranean resource holders need to concentrate on supplying to the region: lower economic costs, less CO2 concerns," Stern said.
Other analysts are more optimistic.
Constantinos Papalucas, founder of consultancy EastMed Energy Hub, told S&P Global Platts that the recent postponement of planned drillings offered an opportunity for the region's countries lagging behind to regroup and move together as a whole.
"The East Med is entering a reality check period, but there is no way back, only a calculated way forward," Papalucas said.
He pointed to the creation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) by Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority in 2019 as evidence of the political will in the region to make the gas industry work.
He added that Turkey's political stance regarding the East Mediterranean could have incentivized the other countries in the region to join forces to push projects forward, such as the planned 10 Bcm/year EastMed gas pipeline to link the gas resources offshore Cyprus and Israel to Greece.
"Wherever there are threats, there are opportunities. Perhaps if Turkey was not behaving as the spoiler of the game the rest of the countries would never act so fast with the establishment of the EMGF to promote a regional energy policy for the East Mediterranean," Papalucas said.
On the EastMed pipeline, he added that if Egypt decided to join as well with new discoveries in its West Mediterranean waters, this would increase the likelihood that the pipeline's capacity could be doubled to 20 Bcm/year, improving the project's viability.
The blocks included in the agreements recently signed with ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and Total are adjacent to Crete, which is the starting point of the third leg of the pipeline.
Cyprus, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma.
It is one of the last remaining EU countries to still burn diesel in power generation despite having made three significant gas discoveries over the past decade.
The developers of the first find offshore Cyprus in 2011, Aphrodite, have now committed to sending the gas to Egypt, while two subsequent discoveries -- Calypso and Glaucus -- remain undeveloped.
And in the meantime, the island remains ungasified. "The priority should be gasifying the island, but nobody wants to hear this," Stern said.
"The Mediterranean is a region where a lot of countries are still using much more oil than is sensible. Oil-to-gas switching using gas from the region makes absolute commercial sense if the politics can be resolved," he said.
Cyprus -- despite its vast gas resources -- does have plans for the import of LNG into the country and plans to build CCGTs to burn gas for power generation.
But even here, there is controversy.
Under a Eur289 million ($316 million) deal signed in December with a Chinese-led consortium, a floating LNG import terminal will be installed at the Cypriot port of Vassilikos in late 2021 or early 2022.
Instead of leasing the FSRU, Cyprus will own it, which is questionable from an economic perspective as it limits the country's ability to offload the vessel if it no longer needs it.
Nicosia is also planning to lock down a 10-year LNG supply deal for its terminal, so at a time when the majority of the world is opening up to gas and LNG competition, Cyprus is doing the opposite.
This has raised eyebrows about the rationale behind the country's LNG import strategy.