While oil could trigger war between Turkey and Greece, the two countries may well be involved in search for "fools gold."
Western oil experts say there is no clear evidence of substantial oil deposits in the Aegean Sea, but the question of who has jurisdiction over the continental shelf of the 100,000-square-mile body of water has brought Greece and Turkey dangerously close to war.
"It's a Catch 22 situation." said one Western oil expert. "No responsible company is going to risk finding out if there is oil in the Aegean until the Greeks and Turks settle their feud. Meanwhile two NATO allies have risked war over what is now only conjecture. There have been no drillings and we consequently have no hard evidence that oil indeed exists."
The dispute has taken the two nations to the Security Council and to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. It has played havoc with the southeastern flank of NATO, while experts sat at 2 conference tables for stalemated talks. It has forced both countries to pump more than 25 per cent of their budgets into national defense and an inprecedented regional arms race.
The crisis began in February 1974, when the Turkish government granted two companies offshore oil-prospecting rights in the central Aegean - an area that the dictatorship then ruling Greece claimed as "legally and historically" Greek.
Earlier that year, the Oceanic Exploration Co. of Denver ahd struck oil off Thassos, a northern island within Greece's territorial waters.
No exploration had been done, however, in the central Aegean off the coast of Chios, Limnos and Mytilene Greek islands farther south, until the Turkish exporation vessel Sisimik set coast of Chios, Limnos and Mytilene, sail for the first time last summer.
"The Turks are nor indicating what, if anything, they discovered," said a diplomatic official. "Minister of Energy Selahattin Kilic if speaking very positively about oil reserves in five areas within Turkish territorial waters. He's said nothing about those areas now contested with Greece."
According to geologists and oil experts, enivronmentally the Aegean seems to be a good area for oil. Set next to the "plate" or oil-strata zone of Saudi Arabia, with shifting geologists pressures creating tremendous strains and heat, "there must be an oil belt somewhere," according to a Greek expert. "Our problem is isolating it today."
Hopes have been dampened considerably by a 75 per cent drop in the projected yield off Thassos, once thought to be capable of producing 1000,000 barrels of oil a day. The figure has now sunk to 25,000 and, according to oil experts, it is decidedly an inferior grade with very high sulfur content.
Based on preliminary Sisimik soundings, and burdened by oil requirements that drain nearly $1 billion from its balance of payments each year, Greece has shifted its prioritites to areas off the islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia and intensified explorations in the eastern Ionian Sea.
Its second prority is Crete and the rugged Peloponessos in the south of the mainland. Then comes Thassos. The Aegean ranks fourth on its list of priorities now.
"The Aegean continues to be of interest to the oil business," said a foreign oil expert, "based on an early report of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development which said that 24 per cent of Greece is exceptionally favorable for the discovery of oil, plus the geology of the Aegean seabed.
"Though Thassos has shown that we're dealing with very small pockets, which are difficult to get to as they're surrounded by rock and sand, and that the quality is not that of Saudi Arabia, it is still of considerably beneit to Greece.
"Before the 1973 oil crisis," he continued, "and the subsequent quintupling of the price of oil, exploiting such deposits wuold not have been economically feasile. But in the face of soaring prices, all of that's changed today. And only recently has techonology so that wells can be opened in waters as deep as the Aegean Sea.
He added: "All these developments coincided with the dispute with Turkey. Wihtout is, you'd see quite a lot of interest in this area today. But now, even if someone would be crazy enough to go into the disputed waters, they'd be chased off by gunboats and no one's going to take that risk. . .especially when we're dealing with tremendous cost factors. To operate a rog alone costs $40,000 a day."
There are now more than 55 international companies, most of them American, with explorations pending for concessions throughout Greece. No one is going to be permitted into the disputed waters, however, until bilateral or international diplomacy settles the dispute between Turks and Greeks.
"Ironically," said Western diplomatic official, neither Greece nor Turkey has the capability, either technical or financial, to exploit any oil deposits alone. The idea of joint exploration, underwritten by international consortiums or governments, has been volleyed between the two capitals for years. But until they settle their squabble, there'll be no action in the Aegean Sea.
"It's there oil in the Aegean?" he continued. "That's the million-dollar question. And perhaps no one will know the answer for years."