OPINION: Hit by constant drilling failures and facing European Union sanctions, Turkey is quietly winding down its controversial search for oil and gas in the East Mediterranean.


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The EU was in a celebratory mood after Turkey recalled a second exploration vessel from disputed waters, interpreting the move as the culmination of a stick-and-carrot policy employed against Ankara.

However, the Turkish action could largely do with state player TPAO having performed miserably, failing to show any tangible returns after drilling eight wells off Cyprus.

The so-far futile foray has, however, fuelled geopolitical risks and cast a large shadow over the appeal of the East Mediterranean as a gas-exporting hub.

With threats of EU reprisals hanging over its head, Turkey last weekend recalled the TPAO-owned drillship Yavuz, which drilled the Selcuklu-1 well off Cyprus, to the southern Turkish port of Tasucu for what it said was routine maintenance.

At the same time, Turkey is beefing up its drilling fleet in the Black Sea where it recently made a significant gas discovery with the Tuna-1 well.

At the behest of members Greece and Cyprus, the EU threatened last week to impose sanctions on Turkey if it pressed ahead with its controversial East Mediterranean drilling campaign, while also offering incentives as part of a two-pronged approach. Turkey then recalled the Yavuz.

Greece, while welcoming the pause in Turkey’s exploration drive, is unsure if it is a genuine attempt at a negotiated settlement or just a ploy to evade sanctions.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greece is committed to diplomacy to prevent a potentially major conflict in the East Mediterranean.

Turkey and Greece, both NATO allies, have long been engaged in hostilities ranging from maritime boundaries to the ethnically divided island of Cyprus.

Tensions spiked this summer after Ankara dispatched the Oruc Reis seismic vessel to disputed waters, infuriating Greece.

Both flexed their military muscle. Two Turkish and Greek frigates were involved in an accidental collision during military drills.

Turkey pulled out the survey vessel in mid-September under pressure from Germany, which then moved to galvanise support for a diplomatic solution.

Turkish threats against international oil companies operating in Cyprus have, however, not abated.

And Cyprus has yet to capitalise on significant gas discoveries made in the past decade. Supermajors Shell, ExxonMobil and Italy’s Eni are all sitting on large finds whose fates hang in the balance.

In February 2018, Turkish warships stopped Eni from drilling a new exploration well to build on its Calypso gas find off Cyprus. Eni has yet to resume drilling.

While the latest pause in Turkey’s Mediterranean exploration has for now helped calm the waters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said in recent weeks that Turkey would be ready to pay any price to defend its maritime rights disputes with Greece and Cyprus.

“Turkey will take its share in the Mediterranean, but also in the Aegean and the Black Sea. When we say we want to do something, it means we will do it, we are ready to pay the price of our actions," Erdogan vowed in early September.

His words and Turkey's actions in the region all year suggest the waters of the Mediterranean Sea will remain turbulent for the foreseeable future.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)