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Increased US naval presence in Med linked ExxonMobil gas moves (updated)

The US Iwo Jima

The beefing up of US naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean has been linked to ExxonMobil’s drilling for gas in Cyprus’ economic waters planned for later this year.

On Tuesday, Russian news agency Sputnik said the presence in the eastern Med of surveyor ships contracted by ExxonMobil coincides with the arrival of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) which entered the US 6th Fleet area of operations on February 21.

Sputnik linked that date to February 23, the day when Turkish warships prevented for a second time a drillship contracted by ENI from reaching a drilling site in Cyprus’ block 3.

The report went on to mention that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who previously served as ExxonMobil’s CEO, criticised the Turkish naval action as “gunboat diplomacy” during a recent meeting with Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

“The US is bolstering its presence in the region as Turkey appears to be increasingly willing to use or at least threaten force to uphold its interests in northern Cyprus. The latest tensions centre on an underwater oil discovery,” Sputnik said.

The Sputnik report was written in poor English and contained factual errors.

Similar reports featured in the Turkish press. A columnist for Turkish daily Milliyet even posited that “unless the Cyprus problem is resolved by October, or unless Turkey’s position on Cyprus’ hydrocarbons is accepted, there is a possibility of Turkish warships going head-to-head with US warships.”

These reports were played up by media in Cyprus and Greece.

According to the US Department of Defence, the USS Iwo Jima – the flagship of the expeditionary force which has since joined the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean – departed its homeport in Florida on February 7 for a scheduled six-month deployment.

Crew and area safety is the top priority for ExxonMobil, company spokeswoman Suann Guthrie told the Cyprus News Agency on Tuesday.

“Our top priority is the safety of the crews that will conduct the research and of the others in the area,” she said.

Block 10, the acreage licensed to ExxonMobil, is not contested by Turkey. Ankara is laying claims to parts of various blocks in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, saying the areas in question form part of its continental shelf. The claim includes part of blocks 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7, to the south and southwest of the island.

The breakaway regime meanwhile claims an ‘exclusive economic zone’ of its own, covering large segments of blocks 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12 and 13.

Moreover, the two survey vessels contracted by ExxonMobil have yet to arrive in Cypriot waters.

The two vessels are the Med Surveyor and the Ocean Investigator. The former is currently located off the port of Haifa, Israel, while the latter is anchored at the port of Lavrio, Greece.

The two ships are expected to arrive soon in Cyprus’ block 10. They will be deploying remotely-operated underwater vehicles which will take further readings of the seabed at three selected locations in block 10.

Their purpose is to gather more data to narrow down the most likely targets for gas drilling, which ExxonMobil is planning during the second half of the year.

ExxonMobil will reportedly be drilling two back-to-back exploratory wells in late summer or early autumn.

Asked about ExxonMobil’s plans, government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou offered a generic response:

“Cyprus’ energy plans are a given and there is no need for further commentary. The [gas exploration] concessions are there, and the interested companies are making their own plans, according to their own timetable.”

Through diplomacy, he added, Cyprus is seeking to ensure that its energy plans proceed as planned.

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