Once Syria conflict resolved, prospects for Syrian offshore production are high.
US, British, French, Israeli and other energy interests could be prime beneficiaries of military operations in Iraq and Syria designed to rollback the power of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) and, potentially, the Bashar al-Assad regime.
A study for a global oil services company backed by the French government and linked to Britain’s Tory-led administration, published during the height of the Arab Spring, hailed the significant “hydrocarbon potential” of Syria’s offshore resources.
The 2011 study was printed in GeoArabia, a petroleum industry journal published by a Bahrain-based consultancy, GulfPetroLink, which is sponsored by some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Total, and BP.
Geo Arabia’s content has no open subscription system and is exclusively distributed to transnational energy corporations, corporate sponsors and related organisations, as well as some universities.
Authored by Steven A. Bowman, a Senior Geo scientist for the French energy company CGG Veritas, the study identified “three sedimentary basins, Levantine, Cyprus, and Latakia, located in offshore Syria” and highlighted “significant evidence for a working petroleum system in offshore Syria with numerous onshore oil and gas shows, DHIs (direct hydrocarbon indicators) observed on seismic, and oil seeps identified from satellite imagery.”
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Excerpts from an article by Nafeez Ahmed, the journalist
France’s secret affair with Assad’s Syria
At the time, when civil unrest was sweeping across Syria, CGGVeritas was contracted to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Sources.
The French company is one of the world’s largest seismic surveyors. Backed by the French government which owns 18% voting rights in the firm, CGGVeritas had acquired seismic data on offshore Syrian resources in 2005, and since then has been the main point of contact for geophysical and geological datasets on behalf of the Syrian regime.
In 2011, the French firm had an exclusive contract with the Syrian government to provide technical support for that year’s Syrian International Offshore Bid Round for firms to explore, develop and produce oil and gas from three offshore blocks in the Mediterranean Sea by the Syrian coast.
“Exploration activity has increased in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years following a series of major multi-TCF (trillion cubic feet) gas discoveries made in the offshore southern Levantine Basin,” wrote Bowman. “Licensing rounds are scheduled to be announced during 2011 for areas in offshore Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus, which are believed to share strong geological similarities with these discoveries.”
Describing offshore Syria as “a truly frontier area of exploration”, Bowman — who was also involved in CGGVeritas evaluations of seismic datasets of energy resources in Libya — noted the discovery of several “flat-spots” which, if real, “will represent billion-barrel/multi-TCF [trillion cubic feet] drilling targets given the scale and volumetrics of the structures within which they occur.”
Western Energy majors court Assad
CGG Veritas was also licenced by the British government for the North Sea, where for the last several years Bowman has held responsibility for identifying prospectivity and coordinating licencing round activities.
In 2012, the US Department of the Interior published a US Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook, which observed that Assad’s government-owned Syrian Petroleum Co.:
“… cooperated with several international oil companies, such as Chinese National Petroleum Co. (CNPC), Gulfsands Petroleum of the United Kingdom, Oil and Natural Gas Resources Corp. of India, Royal Dutch Shell plc. of the United Kingdom, and Total SA of France through subsidiary companies.”
Two years earlier, the Syrian capital, Damascus, was host to the 7th Syrian International Oil & Gas Exhibition, convened by Assad’s Ministry of Petroleum. The exhibition was sponsored by CNPC, Shell, and the French major Total, and was attended by over a hundred representatives of international firms, 40% of whom were based in Europe.
A 2010 draft document produced on behalf of the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum by the exhibition organiser, Allied Expo, described how British company Shell was planning to work closely with the Assad regime to develop Syria’s gas production:
“Shell will devise a master plan for the development of the gas sector in Syria, following an agreement signed with the Ministry of Petroleum,” say the presentation slides, created in October 2010 to promote plans for a new oil and gas exhibition in 2012. “The agreement includes an assessment of the overall undiscovered gas potential in Syria, potential for upstream gas production, need for gas transmission and distribution networks…
Throughout 2010, Shell officials held numerous meetings with British government ministers. In July, Shell met David Cameron to discuss “business issues”, Foreign Office minister David Howell to discuss “international energy matters”, and Charles Hendry, minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
Such meetings with multiple government departments and often dozens of senior officials continued for every month through to the end of the following year, except June 2010. These included meetings with the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor Peter Ricketts; business secretary Vince Cable, various DECC ministers to discuss “energy issues” related to Qatar, along with several sessions with Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Declassified British government memos show that in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, oil firms BP and Shell held several meetings with senior government officials to guarantee a role of British energy companies in post-conflict Iraq.
While publicly the government decried criticisms of an oil motive for British involvement in the war as “the oil conspiracy theory”, one memo of a meeting between then Trade Minister Baroness Symons and UK oil firms revealed that in private, they believed “it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”
After the 2011 protests, even when Assad was brutalising demonstrators in the streets, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruled out military intervention and insisted that the Syrian dictator was a “reformer” — which he took as a green light to escalate his crackdown.
As the cycle of violence intensified, Western governments disassociated from Assad when it became clear his rule had become completely unstable. With the outbreak of civil war, the plans of Shell and other oil majors to open up Syria’s offshore resources were unexpectedly suspended.
Military action to protect Mediterranean oil and gas
The sudden crisis in Syria threw a spanner in the works for longstanding efforts to explore and open up lucrative energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A report published in December 2014 by the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) provides compelling evidence that American, British and Gulf defence strategists see the Mediterranean as an opportunity to wean Europe off dependence on Russian gas, and boost Israel’s energy independence.
As part of this process, the report revealed, military action is viewed as potentially necessary to secure Syria’s untapped offshore gas resources, which overlap with the territorial waters of other Mediterranean powers, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.
The report by Mohammed El-Katiri, an advisor to the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defence and formerly a research director at the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Advanced Research and Assessment Group (ARAG), explicitly acknowledges that a post-conflict Syria would open up new prospects for energy exploration.
“Once the Syria conflict is resolved, prospects for Syrian offshore production — provided commercial resources are found — are high,” wrote El-Katiri. Potential oil and gas resources can be developed “relatively smoothly once the political situation allows for any new exploration efforts in its offshore territories.”
The US Army SSI report noted that Syria’s offshore resources are part of a wider matrix of oil and gas deposits in the Levant basin encompassing the offshore territories of these competing states.
The region is estimated to hold approximately 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which could be just a third of the basin’s total hydrocarbons.
US-led military intervention has a key role to play, the report concludes, in “managing” conflicts and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the prospect of “Syria destabilising into de facto civil
“US diplomatic and military support has a pivotal role to play in the East Mediterranean’s complex geopolitical landscape, and its importance will only grow as the value of the natural resources at stake increases,” the Army SSI report said:
“US security and military support for its main allies in the case of an eruption of natural resource conflict in the East Mediterranean may prove essential in managing possible future conflict.”
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