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Energy Minister: Gas exploration begins in southwestern Greece

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s energy and environment minister says U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil has begun exploration for natural gas …

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s energy and environment minister says U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil has begun prospecting for natural gas off the coast of southwestern Greece, kicking off a delayed project as Europe looks for alternative energy sources due to the war in Ukraine.

An ExxonMobil ship is already operating in the area, Energy and Environment Minister Kostas Skrekas said on state television ERT on Thursday, just four days after Greece’s prime minister announced the start of the project. The move comes amid heightened tensions with neighboring Turkey, and the project has been heavily criticized by environmental groups.

“The ship has started. Cables needed for the sound waves used in reconnaissance are currently being laid, Skrekas said.

“The reserves that we believe exist southwest of Crete and the Peloponnese may be the mining industry’s last hope to find large reserves … in southeastern Europe, in our region,” he said. However, he noted, “until we drill down and see what’s actually there, everything is at the level of speculation.”

If seismic tests indicate the presence of reserves, exploratory drilling could begin in 2025, Skrekas said.

Environmental groups argue that deep-sea exploration for resources will have “intolerable” consequences for vulnerable whale and dolphin populations. Critics also highlight the potential risk of spills and say the project, if successful, would increase Greece’s use of fossil fuels amid the planet’s climate crisis.

The block reserved for exploration includes part of the Greek Trough, where the deepest waters of the Mediterranean Sea lie at a depth of more than 5,000 meters (17,000 feet). The area is a vital habitat for endangered sperm whales and other cetaceans already threatened by fishing, ship collisions and plastic pollution.

Mammals are particularly sensitive to the underwater noise created by seismic exploration for fossil fuels, in which sound waves bounce off the seafloor to find potential deposits. Sonar used on warships has been proven to have a deadly effect on whales, and experts say seismic surveys could do the same.

Meanwhile, the exploration also comes at a time of heightened tensions with Turkey, with which Greece has been feuding over offshore exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish exploration east of the southern Greek island of Crete two years ago prompted a military build-up.

European countries are trying to replace their former dependence on Russian fossil fuels after Russia invaded Ukraine in February and subsequently damaged pipelines meant to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany.

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