Turkey And Cyprus – Continued Scuffle Over Mediterranean Oil Rights

Piri Reis A Turkish oil and gas research ship is exploring off southern Cyprus in an area near the exploration rig operated by U.S. independent Noble Energy Inc., a Turkish foreign ministry official said, in a further escalation of a conflict over drilling rights.

The official said Tuesday that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was “trying to send a message” to the government in the divided island’s Greek south that it, too, believes it has a right to oil and natural gas reserves in Cypriot waters.

“The TRNC issued a license to [Turkiye Petrolleri A.O.] to explore all around the island,” said Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry. The ship, called the Piri Reis, “is 60 to 70 nautical miles away from the area where Noble Energy is drilling, and is just off Limassol.”

Limassol is a town on the southern edge of Cyprus. The island has been divided between Greek and Turkish halves since 1974, when Turkey’s military invaded in the wake of a Greek military coup. Turkey still keeps thousands of troops on the island.

Turkey is the only country to recognize the Northern Cypriot government, while the Cypriot government in the south is internationally recognized as the legitimate government for the island as a whole. It is also a European Union member. However, Ankara argues that neither side should begin exploiting the island’s oil and natural gas reserves until talks aimed at reunifying the island are complete.

Cyprus says it has a right to exploit its sovereign waters and is motivated solely by the likely availability of natural gas—known since a major field was discovered in nearby Israeli waters. Turkey says the Cypriot move to start drilling is a ploy to undermine the reunification talks.

In order to increase pressure on the Cypriot side, Turkey last week signed its own bilateral agreement with Northern Cyprus to delimit the continental shelf between Cyprus and Turkey. That agreement mirrors similar agreements that the Greek Cypriot government has made with Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. In addition, the North’s de facto government agreed that Turkiye Petrolleri could explore throughout Cypriot waters.

It wasn’t clear whether the Piri Reis, named after a 16th century Ottoman admiral and cartographer, on Tuesday was inside Block 12, the area that Noble Energy has contracted to explore.

Ankara also sent naval vessels to protect the Piri Reis and threatened to blacklist any foreign companies that drill under license from the Cypriot government, meaning that they would be banned from winning any exploration licenses in Turkey’s extensive Mediterranean waters.

Northern Cyprus has said it will stop exploring for oil and gas in the island’s waters as soon as the Greek Cypriot side does. Ankara has alleged bad faith on the part of the Cypriot government, since the Greek south rejected a United Nations reunification plan put to referendum in 2004. The North accepted. Soon afterward, Cyprus joined the EU and has since been instrumental in blocking Turkey’s efforts to join the bloc.

By Marc Champion. Copyright 2011 Dow Jones