Greece welcomes big hydrocarbon companies to its lands and seas

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Greece welcomes big hydrocarbon companies to its lands and seas

Greece hopes deep-sea mining will pay its terrible debts – but the only result will be environmental destruction, say Zoe Holman.


When the Syriza Party leader was first elected, he promised to stop the really bad terms for a bailout by the European Union and the IMF. Later he changed his decision and accepted the EU's bail out terms.

One afternoon in early July 2019, Jenny Pyliou looked out onto her land, which is part of a protected nature reserve in Thesprotia, northeastern Greece. She saw a group of researchers for the Spanish energy company Repsol putting rods with explosives into one of her fields. Her husband called the police. The police told the workers to take away the rods and said that oil exploration was not approved in the area.

The following day, the men returned with the explosives. They told Jenny and her husband that they were very expensive and that the couple would have to pay for damage if they removed them. Greeks can now expect activities like this by the oil companies. This is after the government gave licenses in June 2019 for hydrocarbon exploration by the big oil companies, ExxonMobil and Total.

Giorgos Velegrakis is a researcher on the history of oil in Greece at the University of Athens and is a member of the national Initiative Against Hydrocarbon Exploration. He says, ‘This problem is going to stay with us. People will now see Greece as an oil country. This was not possible ten years ago, but now you never know what will happen.’

Talk about Greece’s possible oil and gas is not new. And the country has had one small oil-production plant in the northwestern city of Kavala since the 1970s. But when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gave a license for 40,000 square kilometres of Aegean Sea territory southeast of Crete, it was Greece’s first big interest in oil and gas.

It will be difficult to change the decision and environmental campaigners did not see it coming. Velegrakis says, ‘What happened with ExxonMobil was strange because there was a party of the Left with support from the environmental movement. Why would they rush to do this one week before the elections?’

‘It made no sense for the country, but it makes a lot of sense for geopolitics. It is the power game between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, excluding Turkey, and getting US companies here.’ ‘Cash poor, oil rich’

The plan to use Greece’s energy resources began seriously in 2009, after the economic crisis. In 2011 Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaris (of the rightwing New Democracy party) appeared at a press conference with his environment minister and promised that the country could receive €150 billion in tax from oil in the next 30 years. Velegraksis explains, ‘After 2010, the issue of oil was everywhere. It was what happens in “third world” countries where a cash-poor, oil-rich state says it has to pay its debt using its resources.’

But there was no research to support the prime minister’s promises. People say his ideas are only hopes. Campaigners at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say Greece could expect from its hydrocarbon licenses 5-7 per cent of the total value.

'The amount of money we receive will be a joke,' says Dimitris Ibrahim. He is a marine officer at WWF Greece and leader of the NGO’s campaign against oil and gas drilling. They were telling people that in a few years we would be Qatar. But we would not see any of this money for at least eight to ten years. And with the climate crisis, will we really still talk about oil in 2030?

More important for many, the licensing also means handing over Greece’s natural assets – its marine biodiversity and ecosystems. Over the past ten years, they gave about 20 licences to national and international companies for hydrocarbon exploration around Greece. These include offshore drilling in the Ionian and Aegean seas, and onshore exploration in the Epirus region, Greece’s so called ‘water heart’ where the exploration is now very advanced.

A big part of the licenses includes protected natural land and aquatic parks and important marine breeding areas. Greek law is not clear about onshore or offshore protected areas, but an environmental plan is needed from companies before they give permission. This means the situation is very unclear.

'The difference between Iegal and illegal is not clear,' says Velegrakis. 'Firstly, it takes a long time to get permission and companies are trying to start work and hoping there will be no problem.'

There are licenses for oil exploration on 56 protected areas, with another136 areas likely for exploration activity. The license for southeast Crete is the largest in size and risk. It is near the Hellenic Trench. This is a 56,000 square-kilometre underwater trench from southern Crete to Greece’s west coast. Drilling here there is a risk of earthquakes.


Ibrahim says, ‘There are big risks of accidents, but also it is going to be a very expensive investment, so companies will want as much profit as possible and will take the biggest risks.’ The Hellenic Trench is also the home of endangered sea animals, including whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles.

In May, 100 international scientists signed an open letter to Prime Minister Tsipras about the dangers of exploration for marine animals and asking the government to protect the Hellenic Trench. Tspiras explained there would be the strictest environmental protection.

Eyes shut

But it seems the situation will be the opposite. The government already says the oil companies do not need to test the effects on the environment, usually necessary under EU law. They only need an ‘environmental action plan’.

Ibrahim says, ‘This is a very good idea for companies who do not want to spend time and money on environmental tests. So we are already starting in the wrong way – not following EU law, not following environmental laws we fought for for years. And this is before they start exploration.’

Different from many other EU countries, they give Greek hydrocarbon licenses for all of the process – from research to production. This means that companies are free from the beginning. When national laws do not seem very strict, there is the possibility of going to EU law. This is mostly not tried and some campaigners say that the EU seems happy not to worry about environmental problems in Greece. But in 2019 the WWF took two protests to the European Council calling for action against exploration in Epirus and Crete.

At the same time, local communities in particular in Epirus, are starting their own protests because they are worried about their environment and their livelihoods, many of which depend on tourism. They are working to protest to local and national politicians and, where necessary, oil company employees. There is a story that one company sent parachute researchers into a site near Epirus after locals stopped them several times. We expect Greece’s New Democracy government to welcome hydrocarbon companies to Greece’s land and waters.

‘This will continue and there will be a strong protest against it,’ says Velegrakis. ‘This is so difficult because it has to do with international and national players, big companies, EU politics, and the public climate change debate. But now that we are in the global picture, this is going to be a fight and you never know which way it will go.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)