The continental shelf is the largest and most valuable asset held by Malta. Its area is more than three times the size of Sicily and includes hydrocarbon and other mineral resources worth several billion euros.
Despite rising oil prices, Malta’s unsuccessful oil exploration programme is characterised by decades of inactivity and several oil exploration licences that remain undrilled. Only 12 deep wells were drilled in 60 years, the lowest density of wells in the Central Mediterranean.
Inexplicably, Malta remains the only European country without a national geological service that can assess and develop mineral resources in its vast shelf area.
The 20 per cent probability of success claimed by the oil company that will shortly drill a well south of Malta is relatively low when considering that highly successful 3D seismics were used. This reflects a lack of geological research, aggravated by official secrecy on oil exploration data that keep Malta a high-risk, oil-exploration area.
Malta’s continental shelf jurisdiction is the legacy of British colonial seabed surveys and the fathers of Maltese statehood. In 1966, prime minister George Borg Olivier enacted the Continental Shelf Act which decreed equidistant maritime boundaries. Later, prime minister Dom Mintoff embarked on an ambitious oil exploration programme. When the Medina Bank became a point of contention with Libya in 1980, Malta’s recourse to the International Court of Justice resulted, five years later, in a recognised maritime boundary south of Malta.
Despite diplomatic visits by subsequent Maltese leaders to Rome and Tripoli, Malta retains the dismal record of having the longest disputed maritime boundary in the Mediterranean, exacerbated in December 2012 by a vast continental shelf grab to the east by Italy, while Maltese politicians were engrossed in the run-up to the March 2013 general elections.
This potentially deprives Malta of large hydrocarbon reserves on its threshold to the Eastern Mediterranean, which has become the world’s newest frontier hydrocarbon exploration area.
Apologists for Malta’s failed oil exploration programme blame disputed boundaries. But decades of hostile and belligerent larger neighbours did not deter Israel (over 150 wells drilled) and Cyprus from recently discovering large and lucrative gas fields, partly thanks to their respective national geological surveys. Meanwhile, Malta is the only EU country that will remain entirely dependent on imported oil and gas.
After decades of inertia and lost opportunities, a change in strategy is needed if Malta is to emulate successful oil exploration programmes of other Mediterranean countries.