Delek, Noble executives: We commit to developing Leviathan

Economy Minister Deri calls for changes in current gas outline.

July 2, 2015 20:19
Israel's natural gas

Israel's natural gas. (photo credit: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURES)

In their first addresses following the release of the natural gas compromise outline, executives from the Delek Group and Noble Energy on Thursday pledged their commitment to developing the Leviathan reservoir while criticizing the harsh terms of the outline itself.

“We, with Delek and our partners, already have invested more than $1 billion in the development and exploration of Leviathan,” said Bini Zomer, Noble Energy Israel country manager. “We want to develop it, we are obliged to develop it.”

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Zomer was speaking at the 24th annual conference of the Israeli Association of Publicly Traded Companies, just two days after National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz released the terms of a compromise outline formulated among government officials and the natural gas companies to solve six months of disputes in the sector.

The ongoing disagreements, which have largely frozen new gas development, are the result of Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo’s December announcement that he would review whether the market dominance of the Delek Group and Noble Energy constituted an illegal “restrictive agreement.”

Since then, members of an interministerial team have formulated several drafts of a compromise outline to settle the issue, the final version of which was released on Tuesday.

“This outline, from our perspective is a stringent one, which imposed upon us arrangements that are abnormal in the Western world,” said Gideon Tadmor, chairman of Delek Driling and CEO of Avner Oil Exploration, both subsidiaries of the Delek Group.

While acknowledging that public discussion and transparency is critical, Tadmor criticized the country’s vying parties for “politicizing an economic issue” and accused them of using the issue as “a political taunting tool.”

“There is an obsession here that is completely disconnected from the facts, the economics,” Tadmor said.

He pointed out that the companies have invested enormous resources in the gas reservoirs, but said the moment they began to benefit from the gas development they learned that their assets were being called into question.

Expanding upon the issue of Leviathan’s development, Zomer explained that as soon as the necessary regulations were in place, the companies would continue as planned.

“All of our intention and all of our ambition is to develop [Leviathan] as quickly as possible by the date that was determined in the outline,” he said.

Tadmor corroborated this statement, reminding conference participants that the outline takes Delek out of three of its four reservoirs – Tamar, Karish and Tanin.

“Our entire world is Leviathan,” he said.

On Tuesday, the same day that Steinitz released compromise outline, the Finance Ministry also published online the protocols of the interministerial discussions that have taken place over the past six months.

Among those were two opinions presented by Noble Energy – the first of which was a speech delivered to the committee by Zomer on January 21.

“Let’s be clear,” Zomer said.

“Noble Energy did not violate the law, we did not enter into an agreement in restraint of trade, we have not prevented competition.

What we have done is to succeed beyond the expectations of the government of Israel which invited us to invest in Israel and which was happy to have us risk our shareholders’ money, apparently, so long as we did not succeed.”

Although acknowledging that a monopoly does exist in the gas sector, Zomer explained that this situation “is not a crime.”

Noble and its partners, he said, risked their capital to explore after other less qualified companies failed in their attempts.

In his January speech, Zomer blamed the ongoing disagreements not on the antitrust commissioner’s announcement, but on the idea that “the regulatory system in Israel is broken.” He emphasized that the circumstances have caused Noble Energy’s shareholders to “lose faith and trust in the word of the government of Israel.”

While arguing that no restraint of trade had occurred, Zomer pointed out that Noble did agree “to a fire sale of the Tanin and Karish assets,” and reached an agreement with the antitrust commissioner in March 2014 – a consent decree that was supposed to be ratified in the Antitrust Tribunal.

Zomer also brought up the government’s decision to adopt export limitations the year prior, a step he said was part of “long list of examples in which the rules of the game were changed following our investments, our marketing efforts were at quite an advanced stage.”

“We can no longer expect our shareholders and those of the international investment community to continue to invest their money simply based on promises given by the government of Israel,” Zomer said. “We can’t do it because that trust has been violated too many times.”

Although the government and the companies have largely agreed to the terms of the outline, the document’s cabinet approval still faces a hurdle the government had expected to overcome on Monday.

However, that evening, the coalition chose to postpone a Knesset vote on a legal matter that would have allowed the government to circumvent Antitrust Commissioner Gilo’s objections to the compromise deal. Gilo has made clear that he would not support the outline and went so far as to announce on May 26 his resignation, effective in August.

To sidestep the antitrust commissioner’s authority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other proponents of the compromise deal promoted invoking Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law (the Antitrust Law), through which an antitrust commissioner can be prevented from interfering in a “restrictive agreement” due to reasons of foreign policy or national security.

Because Economy Ministry Arye Deri declined to exercise his authority to invoke the article, transferring his powers to the government required both cabinet and Knesset authorization.

While the transfer received cabinet approval on Sunday, the Knesset vote was eventually postponed after too many coalition MKs refused to participate, leaving the opposition with a majority.

It remains unclear when a new vote on the matter will take place. On Thursday, during a tour of the South, Deri called the gas issue “very complex.”

“I thought, and I still do today, that this is a subject the public should be exposed to,” he said.

“Both the government and the Knesset should be exposed to it.

This is not a subject that is completed by the cabinet.”

One minister alone, he explained, cannot bear the future of the gas deal on his or her shoulders.

“I’m not running away from responsibility,” Deri said. “But this is a subject that the gas companies should know. They need to be exposed to all the government bodies and hear their comments.”

Regarding the outline specifically, Deri maintained the opinion that “no one says the outline is good” and that “even those who defend it say it is bad, but the least bad possible.”

“This outline can be a draft for a discussion,” he continued.

“This is how I see it. I don’t see it as the final thing. There are changes need to be made” such as pricing issues and matters of supervision, he said.

“I know it wasn’t easy, I know it was not pleasant, but I believe that in the end, people will thank me and tell me it is the right way.”

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