Whilst most of European media have narrowed down the deterioration in EU-Turkey relations to the issues of the “refurbished” Hagia Sophia and the protracted Libyan proxy war, their energy ties were just as crippled by Turkey’s intensive drilling campaign in Cyprus’ offshore, generating bad blood between the Old Continent and Ankara. Driven by its purported objective to drill 26 wells in the Eastern Mediterranean, every one of Turkey’s wildcats in Cypriot waters has gauged Europe’s unity and shed light on its ill-preparedness to confront Turkish actions. Now Turkey has started to drill its initial objective along its northern coast, the Black Sea – the one offshore area that is undeniably Turkish. The reticence of Turkish authorities to drill their Black Sea first might explain a lot as to why drilling in the Mediterranean might be more beneficial. The Turkish Fatih drillship has started prospecting works within Turkey’s Black Sea shelf this July and is assumed to have spud the Tuna-1 wildcat on July 20. Tuna-1 will be drilled in water depth of more than 2km, having been pinpointed as a potential drilling site following 3D seismic surveying in the area in April-May 2019 (by means of the Polar Empress vessel). The location of the Tuna-1 well is peculiar as TPAO has decided to go at it right next to the quadrangle of the Romanian-Bulgarian-Ukrainian-Turkish maritime border, within the deepwater Block 26. It seems that the wildcat’s location not far away from Ukraine’s Skifsky block and (perhaps more importantly) from the largest-so-far offshore discovery of the Black Sea deepwater, the OMV-operated Neptun field in Romania, is a deliberate attempt to maximize the success potential of the well by drilling as close as possible to proven commercial discoveries.
At first glance, TPAO is taking the correct step politically – it was the Fatih drillship that has become Turkey’s first-ever own drillship (until 2018 the vessel was operated on the Norwegian Continental Shelf), it was the first to drill a Turkish wildcat in the Eastern Mediterranean (in waters that are internationally recognized as belonging to Cyprus). Moving the ominous drillship into waters that are actually internationally recognized as Turkish alone might shift the prevailing focus a bit. As of today, TPAO owns 2 similar drillships – Yavuz (the sister ship of Fatih) and Kanuni (built a year after the two in 2012, also in South Korea) – so continuing its objectionable drilling program in the Eastern Mediterranean need not come at the detriment of other activities in the Black Sea.
The Turkish upstream segment is quite interesting in that it defies the prevailing logic of the Eastern Mediterranean. Ever since the first exploration well was drilled in 1954, more than 250 companies were active in its upstream sector yet throughout the years Turkey’s national oil company TPAO remained the main driller, surveyor and appraiser (75-80% of all exploratory and development works have been done by TPAO). There have been sporadic surges in interest, be it Turkey’s alleged shale bounty or its continental shelf, however the country’s fast-growth prospects were marred by the mostly viscous, low-gravity barrels it wields (Turkey’s largest oil fields have an API gravity of 13-15°). Moreover, Turkey’s recovery rate hovers around a meagre 20% – no surprise then that as of today, Turkey’s own oil production meets 9% of its consumption and 2% of its natural gas needs (already accounting for the COVID-induced demand drop, otherwise would be even lower).
Turkey’s focus on its Black Sea potential emerged in the 2000s as the country’s energy needs surged amidst stagnant (and low) production rates. TPAO joined ranks with BP to spud the Hopa-1 wildcat in Block 3534, the easternmost of Turkey’s Black Sea offshore next to the maritime border with Georgia, assuming a 10 TCf gas potential, however they were compelled to abandon the drilling as poor reservoir quality and overpressure issues have rendered further activities pointless. At the heyday of Black Sea appraisal, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Petrobras, BP were all involved, making it the Black Sea’s hottest region in terms of major participation. Despite some minor discoveries in the shallow waters of the Black Sea (Akcakoca), the Turkish authorities’ ambitious claims of 10 billion barrels lying at the bottom of the sea waiting to be discovered turned out to be largely pipe dreams as no deepwater drilling wielded any commercial discovery so far.
Turkey’s dedication to its Black Sea acreage serves a double purpose. First and foremost, drilling the Tuna wildcat and any other exploration well distracts the layman from Turkey’s activities in the Eastern Mediterranean – concurrently to the Tuna-1, TPAO drilled another deepwater well in the Mediterranean Sea (Seljuk-1) by means of its Yavuz drillship, located within Cyprus’ Block 06 that is jointly held by Total and ENI. By searching for Seljuk-1, one barely finds any media mention of it, perhaps attesting to the media becoming indifferent to the seemingly inextricable Cyprus dilemma. All the while obfuscating its Cyprus-related dealings, the second reason for launching the Black Sea drilling is non-political: underexplored and out of majors’ sight, consolidating its internal powers to assess the Black Sea’s potential might still spring an implausible surprise.