The Fight to Keep the Mediterranean Free of Oil Drilling

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In the Eastern Mediterranean, the seabed drops to depths of more than 17,000 feet, forming the most stunning geological feature of the Mediterranean basin: the Hellenic Trench, an approximately 400-mile-long, crescent-shaped abyss stretching from western Greece to Turkey, where powerful earthquakes are born and rare marine creatures find refuge. These days, the western edge of the Hellenic Trench represents a stark divide between two opposing worlds: In the west, Italy, Croatia, France, and Spain have banned or are in the process of banning new offshore hydrocarbon extraction as a way of safeguarding the fragile Mediterranean environment and combating climate change. In the east, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are locked in a growing geopolitical competition, staking conflicting claims to marine areas containing possible hydrocarbon reserves while warships defend vessels prospecting for oil and gas.

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Financial support for this story was provided by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

You might call it a paradox. Eastern Mediterranean countries abundantly endowed with sun and wind are aspiring to become fossil fuel producers just as the hydrocarbon era should be drawing to a close. What’s more, to help them do so, they are enlisting French and Spanish companies no longer allowed to start oil and gas projects in their home countries. Egged on by successive US administrations and ExxonMobil, which participates in a consortium exploring for gas south of Crete and around Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean countries seem detached from much of the rest of Europe.

The next policy frontier in most of Europe is outlawing new oil and gas exploration and drilling, as well as phasing out existing extraction projects. After years of massive political mobilization, this drastic policy shift is well underway in Spain, France, Italy, and other countries. For lessons in how to score major environmental victories with the broad support of citizens’ groups and even local capitalists, look no further than the countries of the Western and Central Mediterranean.

In the Consell Insular, the headquarters of the government of Ibiza, Vicente Marí Torres, the Spanish island’s top official, recalls 2012 with dread: “It was a bad dream. We luckily woke up.” That year, Scottish company Cairn Energy had four permits to explore oil and gas right off the shores of Ibiza in the deep waters between the mainland and the Balearic Islands, the Spanish autonomous archipelago in the Mediterranean. Those were among a raft of permits issued amid the financial crisis, inviting oil companies to search for oil and gas across the country. Since 2009, more than 100 oil and gas research permits were issued in Spain. But of those, 57 have been officially discarded, and the rest face near certain demise, thanks to the fierce local resistance that ended up influencing central government policy—so much so that the country is now on the cusp of banning all new oil and gas projects.

Watch a video explaining how the fights to stop oil exploration in the Mediterranean were won.

The Climate Change and Energy Transition bill, which Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s socialist-left coalition government is set to bring to parliament and is almost certain to pass, states that “no new exploration authorizations, hydrocarbon research permits or exploitation concessions will be granted in the national territory, including the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.”

“The question of banning all new drilling looks settled,” says Sara Pizzinato, a member of the technical secretariat of Alianza Mar Blava (Blue Sea Alliance), a formidable advocacy coalition that formed in 2013 to fight the oil projects around the Balearic Islands. With new wells ruled out, the only remaining controversy in the run-up to the final version of the bill is how soon the few wells that produce oil in the country will cease operation.

“If someone told me, when we started off, what we would accomplish, I would have never believed it.” —María Ángeles Marí Puig, general secretary, PIMEE (Savvas Karmaniolas)

“If someone told me when we started off what we would accomplish, I would have never believed it,” María Ángeles Marí Puig, the general secretary of Petita i Mitjana Empresa d’Eivissa i Formentera (PIMEEF, a chamber of small and medium-size companies on the islands of Ibiza and Formentera), which is a member of the Alianza.

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At first glance, an umbrella organization of 52 groups, from bakers’ and plumbers’ to caterers’ and nursery school owners’ associations, is the last place one would look for resistance against deep-sea oil drilling. But this is Alianza Mar Blava’s strength: The organization involves everyone—civil society, business, and local authorities—in the widest possible alliance.

“For years, I was dedicating at least half of my workweek as PIMEEF general secretary to the needs of Alianza,” says Marí Puig, while at least 15 to 20 employees of various environmental NGOs, other business associations, and municipalities around the Balearic Islands were doing the same. A group of 30 to 40 volunteers was tasked with raising public awareness of offshore drilling, and lawyers and lobbyists in Madrid were following every move by the oil companies and the authorities, immediately alerting people on the islands.

Spanish law allows for a brief window of public consultation before a project is evaluated by the Ministry of Environment, and the alliance used this opportunity to flood the authorities with complaints; the Cairn Energy project received around 128,000 petitions—almost as many complaints are there are inhabitants of Ibiza.

Contested waters: The Casablanca oil platform, operated by the Spanish company Repsol, in the Mediterranean Sea off Tarragona, Spain, in 2016. (Angel Navarrete / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the Balearic Islands, all efforts were focused on stopping exploration before the initial phase of mapping the seafloor through acoustic surveys even began. “We didn’t want the surveys because maybe they would have found oil and that would have forced us to change our economic model,” says Marí Torres. “Hopefully, now that the nightmare is over, we will focus on the dream of making Ibiza sustainable.”

For years, environmental activists had been at loggerheads with tourism developers over the 13 million annual visitors who flood the Balearic Islands, straining the local ecosystem. But this fight was different. “It is incredible how everyone got together,” says Juan Tur, an engineer who started the social movement Eivissa Diu No (Ibiza Says No), on a bright winter day at Salinas beach, while volunteers trawl the sand behind him, collecting the tiniest scraps of plastic. “We spent 50 euros and organized the biggest demonstration in the history of the island. Everything we asked for was donated for free. We only had to say, ‘It’s about the oil exploration.’ I was literally crying.” Even the local billionaire, Abel Matures, came out against oil drilling—a sign that it might not be necessary to bring down capitalism in order to end the oil era; dividing the capitalists could be enough.

The outpouring of resistance, peaking with the record-setting demonstration in 2014, had a profound impact on the local branch of the conservative Partido Popular de las Islas Baleares, forcing its leaders to take a stand against their party’s policies in Madrid. “At first, the party tried to say that there’s nothing we can do, since the permits had already been granted,” says Cristina Martín-Vega, the chief editor of the newspaper Diario de Ibiza. But as supporters expressed their outrage, the PP Baleares changed course to oppose drilling.

In 2015, Cairn Energy did not follow up with paperwork on the four permits in the Gulf of Valencia and closed down its Spain office, signaling victory for the local movement. Absent any relevant company statement, it’s impossible to say whether the project’s demise was due to the expectation that the company would fail to secure drilling rights, rather than, say, tanking global oil prices. But we do know a lot more about how crucial grassroots pressure was in informing the next decision, the one that permanently banned oil and gas companies not just from that original concession area but from a much larger one.

As Madrid kept issuing more permits for exploration in the Mediterranean, the anti-drilling movement decided its tactics had to change. Rather than fight off the projects one by one, why not push for the protection of an entire area? The one that most urgently needed safeguarding was a deepwater corridor running parallel to the eastern coast of Spain, home to dolphins and whales that feed there or pass through on their annual migration from the Atlantic to the waters off Corsica. Known as the Corredor de Migración de Cetáceos (Cetacean Migration Corridor), it was under threat from acoustic surveys, so activists collected meticulous data on the harm the sound blasts cause and presented it to the authorities at the same time that public pressure was mounting.

The pressure worked. With unanimous decisions in 2016 and 2018, the parliament of the Balearic Islands asked for 46,385 square kilometers (almost 18,000 square miles) to be declared a marine protected area, even though there were more than a dozen active exploration permits inside it. Then, in June 2018, then–Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government collapsed. Sánchez came to power with support from the left Unidas Podemos and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and one of the first acts of the new government was to declare the corridor a protected area by royal decree. The oil companies that had been eyeing it, among them the Spanish company Repsol, got the message and in 2019 abandoned more of their permits in the Mediterranean, sensing that a total ban on new extraction was only a matter of time. (Oil companies Repsol and Eni did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

Great divide: The areas off Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia are now all but barred to drilling, while the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are still open to hydrocarbon exploration.

Spain is not alone. In neighboring France, a ban on oil and gas exploration has been in place since 2016, when a moratorium went into effect barring exploration in French areas of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and in the various overseas French territories, as well as on land. That moratorium became law in 2017. The minister for ecology at the time, Ségolène Royal, declared that the end of new drilling was a necessary step for France to fulfill its environmental commitments. To the east, Croatia, home to the splendid Dalmatian Coast, also had no qualms settling the issue with a ban on offshore oil and gas projects in 2016. In Italy, activism has also brought oil exploration to a standstill, with no new licenses issued since February 2019.

“We imposed the moratorium in order to draw up an area plan and see where it is appropriate and where it isn’t appropriate to drill,” says the right-populist Five Star Movement’s Gianni Girotto, the president of the Italian Senate’s committee on industry, commerce, and tourism. Drawing up the zoning plan has proved difficult, since even those regions that favor drilling in principle do not want to see oil rigs in their backyards. The ban, originally due to expire in August 2020, was just extended until August 2021.

Italians pushing back against oil extraction may not know about the parallel fight that was gaining steam around the same time in the Balearic Islands, but they are well aware of what decades of oil business have meant for different regions of their own country, and they want none of it. “It is a lie that oil platforms don’t pollute,” says Saverio Lopedote, a fisherman and the president of the fishermen’s association of Monopoli, a scenic town on the southern Adriatic. “I sliced the fish open, and it stank. I seasoned it the best way I could, it still stank,” he said, describing how, many years ago, he had to throw back a whole catch contaminated by oil from a platform off the southeast coast.

Building power: A protest against oil exploration in Manfredonia, Italy, in October 2012. (Angelo Papio)

Fishermen in Monopoli were among the first to mobilize when news came out that Rome had handed out licenses for oil exploration and exploitation off southern Italy. In 2012 dozens of mayors, local businesspeople, and the president of Puglia marched against oil drilling in a demonstration the likes of which the picturesque city of 50,000 had never seen before. The region had spent time and money to improve wastewater treatment to upgrade its beaches and had zero appetite for new marine pollution. Oil and gas platforms nowadays are highly automated, so even the promise of employment rang hollow.

“Currently, a new large offshore gas facility is under construction in Ibleo, south of Sicily,” says Alessandro Giannì, the campaign coordinator of Greenpeace Italy. But it’s continuing only because two companies, Eni and the Milan-based Edison, obtained the relevant licenses before the current ban. “We asked to take a detailed look at how many jobs would be created. The number is around 20,” he says. Plus there is the matter of the country’s very future. “By the end of the century, Italy is projected to lose about 5 percent of its territory to flooding. Most of it is in the northern Adriatic, near Ravenna, which is Italy’s oil capital,” he adds. “Whenever I am asked about the jobs in Ravenna, I say, ‘What about Ravenna itself?’”

“It is a lie that oil platforms don’t pollute…. I sliced the fish open, and it stank. I seasoned it the best way I could, it still stank,” —Saverio Lopedote (Savvas Karmaniolas)

The oil giants have not been deterred entirely. Instead, when a country has banned exploration in its backyard, oil companies simply go farther afield to continue their work. In the past three years, Repsol and the French giant Total were granted licenses to explore for oil and gas in the Ionian Sea and the Sea of Crete, in blocks that largely overlap with the Hellenic Trench. ExxonMobil is part of a consortium investigating the most promising area, and other partners include Hellenic Petroleum and the UK’s Energean.

These locations are rich in biodiversity, like the Cetacean Migration Corridor and the waters off France’s Côte d’Azur. “The Spanish Corredor has a maximum depth of 2,500 meters [about 8,200 feet], while the Hellenic Trench reaches depths of more than 5,000 meters,” says Carlos Bravo, former technical coordinator for Alianza Mar Blava and now a consultant for Ocean Care. “It harbors the biggest population of endangered sperm whales in the Mediterranean and lots of other sensitive species.” WWF Greece began a campaign to declare the Hellenic Trench a protected area last year, with an appeal by 100 scientists and organizations from across the world. But the effort has not attained a level of local and international visibility sufficient to force the Greek government to shelve the exploration plans.

The Mediterranean is a semienclosed sea whose waters take about a century to renew, and it faces some of the most intense pressures of any marine environment. It is one of the biggest tourist magnets in the world, and its ecosystems suffer from pollution, overfishing, noise from heavy marine traffic, and invasive species that cross the Suez Canal—increasingly so as sea temperatures rise.

Deafening and continual sound blasts from acoustic surveys, exploratory wells, and oil and gas production could inflict immense harm in both environmental and commercial terms to the entire region. Yet Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are risking conflict to do just this. As usual, part of the reason boils down to nearsighted economics. Greece cut the Hellenic Trench into exploration blocks in 2011, amid the most severe financial crisis in recent economic history, one that ended up shrinking the country’s GDP by a whopping 25 percent. Turkey needs energy resources to develop its economy and close the gap with Europe. Other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean that have just recently invited international companies to look for oil in their waters are war-ravaged Syria and cash-strapped Lebanon.

Best-laid plans: Clockwise from top left: Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiadis, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis, and Cypriot Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis signing the EastMed pipeline agreement, January 2, 2020. (Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images)

But economics is not the whole story—after all, Croatia’s GDP per capita is lower than that of post-crisis Greece, yet Croatia decided to protect its seas. Cyprus is eager to drill despite being the 34th-richest country in the world in terms of per capita GDP, and Israel is doing the same, despite being the 21st richest, according to the most recent figures from the International Monetary Fund. Parts of Cyprus and Israel could become virtually unlivable in the summer if the climate crisis is not mitigated, but still, those countries form the backbone of a new projected gas pipeline, EastMed, which will span 1,180 miles and carry natural gas from the Mediterranean to Europe.

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Recently developed imaging technologies have allowed for the discovery of gas pockets in previously hard-to-explore geological structures unique to the Eastern Mediterranean, and this has fired up geopolitical rivalries. The African countries of the Mediterranean are largely staying out of the fray, though Egypt has begun drawing from its offshore gas reserves, and Libya has signed a memorandum with Turkey to divide Eastern Mediterranean waters in a way that is unacceptable to Greece. The next great battle for the oil companies is securing environmental permits, but judging from the recent spike in mobilization in communities in western Greece and Crete, this might not be as straightforward as they think. Not to mention that installing drilling equipment and pipelines along Europe’s most seismically active arc, where powerful earthquakes are a regular occurrence, is not exactly in the best interest of people living nearby.

For Greek activists, the battle is complicated by the new gas rush’s underpinning by a US desire to build energy infrastructure that excludes Russia. Green energy infrastructure could accomplish the same goal but would present distinct disadvantages for ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies. Indeed, ExxonMobil is lobbying for the construction of EastMed.

In the end, avoiding senseless tensions and dealing with the most global of all problems, the climate crisis, might come down to a strong, shared commitment by communities to protect their immediate surroundings. For a fragile ecosystem like the Mediterranean, this means that the entire region, not just countries in the central and western part, must work in the same direction. “If we do not preserve the Mediterranean Sea, it has no future,” says Miquel Mir, the Balearic Islands’ minister of the environment. Just like the battles against drilling, scaled from tiny islands to mighty capitals, a Mediterranean free of fossil fuels could serve as a blueprint for climate sanity on a global scale.