“Green, blue and circular” v. “black” economy for the Mediterranean?

“Heading towards a Greener Mediterranean” is the promotional slogan of the kick-off meeting for the launch of the INTERREG EURO-MED 2021-2027 program, to be held in Lisbon, on the 2nd of December 2021.

“Green, blue and circular” are the main pillars of the Economic Strategy of the EU for the current decade, playing a major role in the implementation of the European Green Deal.

Blue Economy refers to marine-based or marine-related activities, either in established sectors, such as marine living resources, marine non-living resources (fossil fuels) etc., or in emerging and innovative sectors, such as new types of marine renewable energy (i.e. ocean energy), blue bio-economy and biotechnology, marine minerals, desalination etc.

In its new approach, the European Commission abandons the “Blue Growth” objective, applied during the previous financial period (2014-2020), in favor of the “sustainable blue economy” concept. Economy and environment should be considered as a whole, while all economic activities in the sea should reduce their environmental impacts.

The EURO-MED program will finance, with a budget of 281M € in total (pending final approval), actions relevant to the emerging and innovative sectors. These activities hold indeed a large potential for the future development of coastal and insular communities.

All other EU financial instruments for the new financial period concerning the same area, such as ADRION (EUSAIR macro regional strategy), Next-MED (European Neighborhood Policy) and INTERREG bilateral programs (Italy-France, Greece-Italy, Greece-Albania etc.), will probably follow this same orientation.

The Plan Bleu report (2020), describes with crystal clear terms the alarming situation on the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean. The report states among other that vulnerable resources are under pressure, that the basin is a hotspot of climate change, and that its coastal zone concentrates and accumulates pressures and suffers from environmental degradation.

When speaking of a semi-closed sea, all coastal States should share common values and apply the same policies in order to achieve common objectives. It seems this is not the case in the Mediterranean, where economic interests and political rivalries, including armed conflicts territorial disputes and economic weaknesses, limit opportunities for cooperation and common actions.

The main question is therefore to examine if the future European high investments, in particular from the EURO-MED program, will be sufficient to reverse or even influence the actual economic model and realities in the Mediterranean basin.

Our analysis will focus on Energy production, a very important but conflictual sector of blue economy, where the struggle between conventional and renewable energy resources is predicted to be tough.

In its communication on Blue economy, the European Commission stated that offshore Oil and gas sector has been in decline for some years, due, in principle, to the Italian moratorium on offshore oil and gas permits.  But is this assumption valid for the Mediterranean offshore oil and gas exploitation in general? What about nuclear energy, which is not considered as a marine energy resource but can have environmental impacts on used water and could deteriorate more and more the sea basin?

According to data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Levant region of the Eastern Mediterranean — which includes Syrian coasts — holds a reserve of 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

While Egypt pioneered the discovery of offshore gas with the Abu Qir field in 1969, it was the start of drilling in deep waters in 2000 that opened a new horizon in the Eastern Mediterranean. To date, more than two thousand billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas have been discovered in the Egyptian sector of the Mediterranean Sea. And yet, the Eastern Mediterranean remains under- or unexplored and has good prospects for additional reserves.

Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean are pursuing active policies in this energy-rich region while the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France and Italy seek to maintain their influence in the region as well.

Actually, after two serious economic and health crises, the risk of supply security and the increasing oil and gas prices, it would be rather doubtful for Governments to deny to exploit the recently discovered “black gold”, favoring it over other “noble” and environmental-friendly resources. Country producers need the money, large petroleum companies the profit and Northern European countries energy security, independence from Russian gas and stable prices.

The potential role of the Eastern Mediterranean in diversifying Europe’s energy sources becomes, therefore, significant. The East-Med pipeline project will be the mean to transfer Mediterranean gas to Europe through Israel, Cyprus and Greece.

In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that Turkish President Erdogan claims at any time the “Blue homeland”, as the main element of the Turkish foreign policy.

A number of experts sound the alarm that the planned extraction of hydrocarbon deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean present a dramatic risk of irreversible ecological and socio-economic disaster at the sea, the productive land areas where mining is planned, but also the viability of the countries themselves. Other experts consider that hydrocarbons, and especially gas, are part of the solution towards the energy transition and insist on the fact that efforts for research and discovery of new deposits as well as their exploitation must be intensified.

International experience has shown that in an area where hydrocarbons are mined, accidents and general degradation are inevitable, despite strict environmental conditions and prevention measures. It is then obvious that mining activities cannot coexist with the so-called blue and green activities.

Two recent typical examples illustrate the negative effects of onshore and offshore mining: Basilicata (Italy) and the Gulf of Mexico.

After almost thirty years of mining, Basilicata is now facing a dramatic environmental catastrophe, rising cancer rates, a devastated agriculture and degraded tourism. As a result, the Italian Government has decided to suspend any new application for production concession by the end of 2021.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the explosion at BP’s oil rig in 2010 spilled 5 million barrels of crude oil into the sea. It took three months to close the mining well at a depth of 1,500 meters and stop the leak. The oil covered 180,000 km2 of sea and coast, from Texas to Alabama, while more than 5,500 tons of toxic chemical dispersants were used.

Apart the doubts and worries for the exploitation of oil and gas, a series of concerns are expressed for the function or the construction of new nuclear power plants in different countries around the Mediterranean. There are currently nuclear power plants in Bulgaria, Romania, France, Spain and Slovenia, while such units are being planned in Turkey, Albania and Northern Macedonia.

Turkey envisages to construct four nuclear reactors with a capacity of 1.200MW, the first in Akuyu, to be built by Rosatom, a Russian State-owned Atomic Energy Company.

Rosatom has also received a permit from the Egyptian Government to construct a plant in the Dabaa area of ​​MarsaMatrouh, financed by Russia with a loan of 25 billion US dollar.

France owns fifty-eight nuclear reactors and about 80% of its energy production is based on nuclear energy. This percentage is the highest in the world. France has one of the lowest electricity prices in the European Union and the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in the EU.

Nuclear energy is therefore coming back again as a means of transition to an economy with zero carbon footprint, and despite bad experiences and accidents, many countries, as for example the UK and Japan, are also adopting this solution.

Ten Member States, (the Netherlands, Romania, the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary) led by France consider that natural gas and nuclear energy can be used in the fight against climate change and requested to be recognized as such, in the so-called “taxonomy”.  On the other side, Germany – which is locking its nuclear plants -, Austria, Luxembourg and other countries are strongly resisting to that policy. Some other countries consider that gas should be only a temporary solution, a bridge towards the transition to green energy, as it is less polluting than oil and although it still is a fossil fuel.

According to current forecasts, in less than a decade the planet will have decisively shifted from fossil fuels to RES and gentle resource management, with the first drastic expected change is the technology of cars that currently consume more than half the world’s fuel. In fact, a consequent reduction in the price of oil is expected.

It remains to see if this forecast will be valid for the Mediterranean basin as well, given that energy will be produced in parallel by conventional sources (fossil fuel and nuclear) and by emerging energy renewables.

At the end of the decade, we will know if the European money was used to save the sea or was lost in the sea.


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