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Unlike in the Red Sea, where azure blue water and multicolored corals clearly exhibit the diversity of life, in the eastern Mediterranean, the ecological riches are tucked away in labyrinthine trenches, deep submarine canyons, and seamounts. This may be one reason why there was so little outcry over the past decade as oil and gas companies reached into ever-deeper waters in the area, expanding into the Levantine Basin that stretches between Turkey and Egypt.
“It is difficult to convince people that there are many things worthy of protection inside the Mediterranean,” says Asaf Ariel, the science officer for EcoOcean, an Israeli NGO that is campaigning to broaden marine protected areas within the country’s waters. “When they look at it, people aren’t immediately aware of the amazing life it hosts.”
Another reason for the dearth of resistance is that ever since 2009, when Texas-based Noble Energy announced the discovery of gas at the Tamar field off Israel, coastal states have been racing to collect a share of eastern Mediterranean reserves. With the exception of Egypt, none have considerable domestic oil and gas supplies, and the estimated 3.4-trillion-cubic-meter reserves carry the promise of energy security. This infatuation with finding gas, as well as conflicting claims by coastal states over who has rightful access, has led to the near-complete neglect of the safety and sustainability dimensions of the drilling efforts.
But the Mediterranean is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Home to a rich variety of geological structures such as canyons, hydrothermal vents, and mud volcanoes, its seabed reaches depths of 5,000 meters and includes warm deep-sea basins, a rarity where temperatures remain stable despite increasing depth. The Mediterranean supports diverse marine life, including 21 cetacean species, endangered sea turtles, and the Mediterranean monk seal, which is at imminent risk of extinction. Of all the species that inhabit the Mediterranean, 28 percent are endemic.
Nonetheless, the Mediterranean basin is insufficiently protected, says Bayram Öztürk, a marine biologist from Istanbul University in Turkey. Two sites in particular—the Eratosthenes Seamount to the south of Cyprus, and the Anaximander Seamounts south of Turkey—have been earmarked for oil and gas exploration despite being sanctuaries for marine mammals, including endangered species such as sperm whales and fin whales.
Opposition to the expanding operations is growing, however. For some environmentalists, a leading concern is the seismic surveys used to reveal underwater geological structures. Seismic surveying involves firing blasts from powerful airguns every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes. The technique reveals the structure of the seafloor, but it also harms marine mammals, many of which rely on sounds to communicate and carry out everyday behaviors.
Another point of concern is the particular oceanography of the Mediterranean. Though oil and gas spills are damaging wherever they occur, a spill in the eastern Mediterranean would be particularly bad. “It takes about 100 years for a drop of water to enter the Mediterranean and exit again,” says Ariel. “If an accident were to happen, whatever spills to the water will stay inside for a long, long time.”
A spill could be triggered by anything from an earthquake in the seismically active region to unfavorable weather, terrorism, or accidents caused by technological or human error. But the odds increase as industry pushes deeper: studies reveal that the risk of an accident increases by eight percent for every additional 30 meters of drilling.
A 2019 study shows there is an 88 percent likelihood that a 30-day-long spill would pollute the shores of at least two eastern Mediterranean states, and a 25 percent chance that at least four countries would be harmed. Avoiding this fate would require an immediate, coordinated response—something those states are ill-prepared to organize. Entrenched hostilities between neighboring countries are also likely to hinder mitigation efforts.
Those risks explain why, beginning in 2018, thousands of Israelis, including Moshe Barak, a retired environmental engineer, organized against building the Leviathan gas rig, which was being constructed 10 kilometers from the country’s beaches even though the reservoir itself is located some 130 kilometers offshore.
According to official statements, the rig was built close to shore to ensure protection against an attack. That argument, however, was contradicted by the former defense minister. Activist groups suspect cost-cutting was the real motive.
Barak volunteers with the Homeland Guards (Shomrey Habayit), an NGO that formed in opposition to the gas platform. “If a spill were to occur,” Barak says, “all human activity would cease for a long time. The fisheries would close, tourism would suffer, all creatures—the turtles, the fish—they would all die.”
Already, the Leviathan rig has broken down 30 times since it began operations on December 31, 2019. The Homeland Guards suggests the rig’s flare, a safety system that is used to combust excess gas to avoid putting extreme pressure on the platform, was activated repeatedly over this period. Pointing to Noble Energy’s poor track record in Colorado, where its fracking operations caused 358 spills in four years, Barak questions why his country is taking such massive risks.
“I used to walk on the beach every day,” says Barak, his tone nostalgic. But he feels his sanctuary is no more. “I won’t go there and bathe in the sea anymore, because I don’t know what they pour over the night. And no one can put a price to this loss.
“They have taken this from me.”