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Greece opens its arms — and seas — to hydrocarbon giants

The Syriza Party leader was first elected on a promise to scrap the draconian terms for a bailout set by the European Union and the IMF. He later went back on his pledge, accepting the EU's mandated austerity measures.

One afternoon in early July, Jenny Pyliou looked out onto her land, part of a protected nature reserve in Thesprotia, northeastern Greece, to see a group of researchers for the Spanish energy company Repsol sticking rods with explosive devices into one of her fields. Her husband called the police,  who on arrival, instructed the workers to remove the instruments, noting that oil exploration activities had not be approved in the area.

The following day, the men returned to reinstall the devices, informing the Pylious that they were extremely costly and that the couple would be liable for any damage if they removed them. Such antics by the oil companies, who get up to them with relative impunity, are what Greeks can now expect more of following the government’s licensing in late June of major hydrocarbon exploration by oil giants ExxonMobil and Total.

‘Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, this issue is going to stay with us – one way or another, Greece will be labelled as an oil country,’ says Giorgos Velegrakis, a post-doctoral researcher on the history of oil in Greece at the University of Athens and a member of the nationwide Initiative Against Hydrocarbon Exploration. ‘This was out of the question a decade ago, but now you never know what will happen.’

Discussion of Greece’s potential oil and gas assets is nothing new. There has been speculation in the political arena since the mid-twentieth century and the country has operated one small oil-production plant in the northwestern city of Kavala since the 1970s. However, the eleventh-hour decision by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ outgoing Syriza government to award a license for some 40,000 square kilometres of Aegean Sea territory southeast of Crete reflects Greece’s first major foray into oil and gas exploration.

They were selling people the belief that in a few years we would be Qatar. But in effect, we would not see any of this money for at least eight to ten years, and I wonder with the current climate crisis, will we really still be talking about oil in 2030?

It is a step that will be difficult to reverse and one that environmental campaigners did not see coming. ‘What happened with ExxonMobil was quite strange because you have a party of the Left, who typically had strong support from the environmental movement – why would they rush to do this one week before the elections?’ says Velegrakis.

‘On a national level it made no sense, but it makes a lot of sense for geopolitics. It comes down to this power game of an alliance between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, excluding Turkey, and securing the role of US companies here.’

‘Cash poor, resource rich’

The drive to exploit Greece’s energy resources began in earnest in 2009, after the economic crisis had hit. As fiscal strife mounted, in 2011 Greece’s then Prime Minister Antonis Samaris (of the rightwing New Democracy party) went so far as to appear at a press conference alongside his environment minister, promising that the country could garner some €150 billion in tax revenues from oil over the coming 30 years.

As Velegraksis explains: ‘After 2010, it was boom – the issue was everywhere on the agenda. It was the typical discussion that happens in so-called “third world” countries where a cash-poor, resource-rich state says it has to repay its public debt by using its resources.’

There was, however, no preliminary research to substantiate the prime minister’s fantastical claims. Rather, observers say such forecasts are grossly inflated – a case of politicians trading in hope in a moment of popular disenfranchisement. In reality, campaigners at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimate that the ratio of royalties Greece could expect from its current hydrocarbon concessions would be something in the range of 5-7 per cent of the total value .

'The amount of money we receive will be a joke,' says Dimitris Ibrahim, a marine officer at WWF Greece and leader of the NGO’s campaign against oil and gas drilling.They were selling people the belief that in a few years we would be Qatar. But in effect, we would not see any of this money for at least eight to ten years, and I wonder with the current climate crisis, will we really still be talking about oil in 2030?

More significantly for many, the licensing also reflects a trade-off in Greece’s priceless natural assets – its marine biodiversity and ecosystems. Over the past decade, around 20 licences have been awarded to national and international companies for hydrocarbon exploration around Greece. These include offshore drilling blocs in the Ionian and Aegean seas, as well as onshore exploration in the pristine Epirus region, Greece’s so called ‘water heart’ where the exploration is now in its most advanced stages.

A huge portion of the concessions granted so far overlap with protected natural land and aquatic parks, including key marine breeding areas. Greek law does not explicitly prohibit exploration in either onshore or offshore protected areas, but in these instances, a clear environmental plan is required from companies before official permission is granted. This process means that questions of legality are murky and often malleable.

'It is a thin line between legal and illegal,' explains Velegrakis. 'Firstly, the approval procedure is lengthy and at the same time, you have companies trying to start work and create facts on the ground, hoping there will be no reaction.'

Oil concession sites have already encroached upon 56 protected areas, with a further 136 areas around concession sites likely to be affected by exploration activity. The recent license for southeast Crete is by far the largest in terms of both scale and risk. Like other – smaller – blocs in the Ionian Sea, this concession intersects with the Hellenic Trench – a 56,000 square-kilometre underwater depression stretching from southern Crete all the way to Greece’s west coast. It is here that the Eurasian and African tectonic plates collide, forming extreme depths and a complex seabed.

Not only does drilling in such an area threaten to trigger earthquakes, the unique trench formation means that companies are likely to literally find themselves out of their depth with respect to technology. The seabed in the licensed area is an average 3,000 metres from the surface, while the current limit of tested ultra-deep-sea drilling is around 3,200 metres.

Pandora’s box

‘We are reaching the very limits of technology here in Greece,’ says Ibrahim. ‘This creates major risks for spills and other accidents, but it also means that it is going to be a very costly investment, so companies will want maximum gains and take maximum risks.’

The Hellenic Trench is also a key habitat for a range of endangered marine mammals, including sperm and fin whales, several varieties of dolphins and seals, as well as sea turtles. The whales in particular rely on sonic functions for their survival – as Ibrahim explains, ‘a deaf whale is a dead whale’ – and will therefore be impacted from seismic testing in the area.

In May, 100 international scientists and scientific bodies signed an open letter to Prime Minister Tsipras detailing the potentially lethal impact of exploration activities on marine animals and calling on the government to protect the Hellenic Trench.

Tspiras’ July licensing announcement was accompanied by the predictable array of caveats around environmental responsibility. Each stage of the process, he explained, would be defined by ‘the application of the strictest environmental protection legislation globally’.

Eyes wide shut

But all indications thus far point to the contrary. As an administrative perk, the government has already exempted the oil companies from the obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment, typically mandatory under EU law, for the initial seismic testing phase. Instead, they must provide only an ‘environmental action plan’ – a document produced by the companies themselves which carries no requirement of publication or consultation. A similar document for a licensed bloc in the Epirus region was leaked earlier this year and, as campaigners note, contains no environmental prohibitions whatsoever. 

‘This is a major incentive for companies who do not want to spend any time and money on a proper environmental assessment,’ says Ibrahim. ‘So we have already started on the wrong footing –undermining EU law, violating environmental legislation that we have ‘fought for decades’, and completely un-transparent processes that are not open to the public. And this is before they have even started operating in the area.’

Moreover, unlike in many other EU countries, Greek hydrocarbon licenses are not limited to exploration alone, but are granted for the entire process – from research through to production and decommissioning. This means that companies are effectively given the green light from the moment of signing, barring any other form of scrutiny or intervention by the national government. In Greece, this is especially unlikely to be forthcoming, with the government lacking both the necessary technological capacities and environmental concern to conduct its own independent assessments.  

Where national regulation appears suitably lax, there is the possibility of recourse to EU law. This remains a largely untested ‘grey area’, with some campaigners noting that the EU has in the past seemed willing to turn a blind eye to violations of environmental principles in Greece. However, WWF itself has this year filed two claims to the European Council calling for an intervention against exploration activities in blocs in both Epirus and Crete.

At the same time, local communities – in particular in Epirus – are mounting their own grassroots campaigns. Concerned about the impact on both their environment and their livelihoods, many of which depend on tourism, residents are co-ordinating to target local and national politicians, as well as, where necessary, oil company employees themselves. (It is rumoured) that one company was recently forced to parachute researchers into a site near Epirus after locals had obstructed their entry on multiple occasions.) Greece’s incoming New Democracy government is expected to take up the baton of welcoming hydrocarbon companies to Greece’s land and waters.

‘The trend will continue and there will be a strong movement against it,’ says Velegrakis.‘This is so complex because it has to do with international and national players, giant companies, EU politics and the public climate change debate. But now that we are in the global picture, this is going to be a struggle and you never know which way it will go.’



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