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Panelists Weigh Implications of Cyprus Natural Gas Reserves

By Victoria Zhuang, Contributing Writer

UPDATED: October 22, 2014, at 12:15 a.m.

The recent discovery of natural gas reserves around Cyprus raises both hope and concern regarding relations among neighboring countries in the Middle East and Europe, according to panelists at a discussion on Thursday at the Center for European Studies.

Three speakers presented their views on the question of whether the Cyprus reserves could be used for the benefit of all parties involved or if they will exacerbate existing tensions over contested resources.

“The Mediterranean is one of the only areas in the world still producing most its electricity from oil,” said Brenda Shaffer, visiting professor at Georgetown University, in a slide accompanying her presentation. Shaffer is also a consultant to Azerbaijan's state oil company.

Natural gas burns cleaner than oil and could, in turn, incur less damage on public health in these countries. Shaffer said the new energy opportunity raises expectations of cooperation among Middle Easterners, who all share an interest in the shift towards natural gas. Energy sources found around Cyprus and in other pockets of the Mediterranean could be put in pipelines to encourage trading between states.

Another panelist discussed the political and economic goals associated with the creation of pipelines, referring to the example of a current pipeline project that would go from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean to bypass Russia.

“The pressure to build a pipeline, to finally get it started–because this has been discussed for more than ten years–is enormous,” said Marina Ottaway, senior researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “If it existed, it would make it much more difficult for Russia to control Europe. There would be much greater autonomy.”

The panelists cautioned against undue optimism, though.

“We still don’t know how much gas there is,” Ottaway said, adding that the reserves may not contain very much gas. In addition, the costs of building pipelines are high, she said.

Later, a panelist discussed Turkey’s demands for Cyprus to hand over the recently discovered gas, and other countries’ disapproval of these demands.

“It has probably accelerated to some extent the realignments in the area,” said Sir Michael Leigh, senior advisor at the German Marshall Fund.

“We’ve had cases where peace brought pipelines, but actually no precedent in the international system where pipelines for gas or oil brought peace,” Shaffer said. “In fact, literature teaches us the opposite.”

The panel was the introductory event for a new study group at the CES focused on the geopolitics of energy in the Mediterranean and European energy policy.

“I think one of the things we learned from the discussion of Cyprus and natural gas was that oftentimes, cases that we don’t necessarily know a lot about can shed a broader light into regional dynamics and global dynamics,” said Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, one of the co-chairs of the study group and a moderator at the panel.

An audience member said he appreciated the range of backgrounds among the panelists.

“I think there was a nice combination of academia and professional practitioners,” said Maximilian Barth, a visiting researcher from Europe at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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