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Fatih drilling ship sets sail for a Black Sea exploration mission on May 29. (Photo: Twitter)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Aug. 21 the country’s largest-ever natural gas reserve discovery. Drilling ship Fatih found a natural gas reserve of 320 billion cubic meters in the “Tuna-1” field, close to the exclusive economic zone borders of Romania and Bulgaria, about 175 km northwest off the Turkish coastal town of Karadeniz Ereğli. This was undoubtedly a welcome development. It would reduce Turkey’s energy dependence, since, as Erdoğan puts it, the major reason for Turkey’s current account deficit is the energy imports.
We hope new reserves will be discovered on land offshore, natural gas and electricity consumer prices will drop, new jobs will be created, the budget gap will narrow and the inflation rate will fall. This is a significant amount for an energy-poor country. It is also precious that the reserve was found by Turkey’s own seismic ship, with its own equipment and personnel. But is it huge enough for Turkey to “make it to a higher league” or “a shift of axis,” as President Erdoğan and  Treasury and Finance Minister Albayrak,  his son in law, claim? Is it enough to break foreign dependency in energy, push down the prices of natural gas consumed for heating or cooking or used by industries, and help the economy recover? And when will the state budget and the citizens begin to feel the economic benefits of this exploration?
Let’s search for answers to these questions together.

1- Impact on the economy

The announcement could have a short-term impact on the Turkish Lira’s value against the U.S. dollar and the interest rates if “an official” hadn’t told Reuters a day earlier that the discovery amounted some 800 billion cubic meters of natural gas as a result of yet another serious communication accident. However, such an impact did not occur as the markets were prepared for 800 billion cubic meters of discovery, not 320 billion and the value of the dollar against the lira remained almost unchanged. It is way too early to talk about the discovery’s contribution to the state’s budget and citizens’ pockets. The president ordered the gas to be in use as of 2023. However, once in use, not all of the 320 billion cubic meters of gas be extracted. Just to remain in technical terms, we still do not know how much of the  320 billion cubic meters of “geological reserve” is processable. Experts say some 5 to 10 billion cubic meters of gas can be produced annually when the operation starts. This refers to an approximately 10 to 20 percent contribution to Turkey’s current gas consumption. It is not bad at all, but it is hard to expect a huge contribution to the citizens’ budget due to such an amount.

2- Will the 320 billion cubic meters of gas break dependency?

This is not difficult math. Turkey’s natural gas consumption was about 45 billion cubic meters in 2019. In 2020, this figure might drop slightly due to the outbreak of Covid-19 coronavirus but if we assume that the country’s consumption will keep increasing slightly in the coming years, we can see that the 320 billion cubic meters of gas can meet the demand for some six or seven years. Still, we should remember that not all of the reserves will be extracted at once. Just for a comparison, the amount of the natural gas reserves that the Greek Cypriot government has been trying to extract for years, but remains unattended because French and Italian companies found it not feasible economically, is estimated at 1.7 trillion cubic meters. The proven (not estimated) reserves of Russia, the world’s largest natural gas reserve owner, are 50 trillion cubic meters. It is followed by Iran with 33.8 trillion cubic meters, and Qatar with 23.8 trillion cubic meters. So, the discovery of the 320 billion cubic meters of gas is not a success that can be underestimated, but it does not pile up to an amount that could cut Turkey’s foreign dependency.

3- Can a gas reserve be found in one month?

Erdogan said that the Fatih drilling ship set out on May 29, started drilling on July 20 and found the natural gas reserve last week. Energy Minister Fatih Sönmez gave the details that the gas reserve was fount at some 3.500 meters, after 1.4 kilometers of drill down from the seabed at depth of 2100 meters. If this had been a finding from the scratch, it would probably have been a speed that broke all records. The minister also said that the previously drilled area was retried to find the reserve as soon as possible. The initial researches in the Tuna-1 area, now named “Sakarya”, had been launched by Turkey’s state-run TPAO and Madison in 2003, and discovery was announced in 2004. It is known that drilling activities were carried out in the same field with BP in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
This situation is technically possible, you may find what others could not in a 2,500-square-kilometer wide. However, one explanation for the finding of such large beds in such a short time may be that the beds were found and instructions were awaited for the final excavation. It can be speculated that such an instruction might have been issued in May, when tension increased in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, and when it was understood that sales by state-run banks were also insufficient to keep the dollar below 7 liras.

4- Did it shift Turkey’s axis?

Minister Albayrak actually addressed this question in his speech: “Neither East nor West, the new axis is Turkey.”
“Was it not Turkey even before the natural gas discovery in the Black Sea?” one cannot help asking. So there is no change, so the answer is no. Moreover, the denial of the West is also not true. Turkey is an active member of NATO, the military alliance of the West. Just recently, the Turkish Defense Ministry proudly announced the refueling of a NATO fighter jet in the skies of Romania by a Turkish tanker plane, and joint drills with the U.S. 6th Fleet and Italy. As far as we know, the country’s European Union (EU) accession policy continues on the line of “We won’t be the side that said no.” In a nutshell, no, this discovery is not qualified to shift Turkey’s axis.

5- Any impact on a possible election?

Erdoğan wants some kind of election guarantee from the citizens when he says the gas extraction will start in 2023. It looks as if the president wants to give an impression that any other government else than his would not like to benefit from this valuable discovery that the country made after such long years of research. However, citizens are looking for solutions to serious economic problems today. What is more, the good news of gas and oil discoveries were announced to the public by all the previous governments so far, with the intention of netting votes in elections. Let’s leave the older examples and just look at the recent ones.
Before the 2007 elections, it was announced that natural gas was found in Thrace and Salt Lake, and oil in Manisa. Before the 2010 constitutional referendum, Turkey found oil in Manisa and Ergani. Before the 2014 elections, the good news on the finding of shale gas in Diyarbakır that would Turkey’s demand for  40 years was announced. Ahead of the June 7, 2015 election, it was announced that natural gas was found in Thrace, and before the Nov. 1, 2015 election, natural gas was discovered in the Black Sea. Before the 2018 elections, new oil fields were found in Mardin, Şırnak, Hakkari, Batman and Siirt and natural gas in Thrace. Finally, before the March 31, 2019, local elections, the good news of oil in Siirt and natural gas in Thrace were declared. I wish all these were true.

Kanal Istanbul and the outlook

Looking at this picture, the natural gas discovery that is announced by the Presidency, the opposition parties in Turkey already instruct their local organization to be ready for a snap election. And there is this issue of Kanal Istanbul, a plan to built a giant water canal north of Istanbul to artificially connect the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea. It was wondered whether the announcement of a gas finding in the Black Sea would be used to justify the construction of Kanal Istanbul. Looking at the current picture, I do not think that it is likely, thus this would be another communication fiasco. Though, no justification is sought when Erdoğan wants a project to be launched.
The natural gas reserve discovery in the Black Sea is an important development and all people who have contributed deserve congratulations, but the facts are obvious.