Gas fields in contested seas

The Tamar and Leviathan gas fields belong to Israel. But what happens when more are discovered where maritime boundaries have not been agreed upon?

January 19, 2011 22:52
3 minute read.
Robbie Sabel

Robbie Sabel. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Under the eastern Mediterranean Sea lies what may be some of the world’s biggest natural gas fields. Two of them, Tamar and Leviathan, have already been licensed by Israel to Israeli and foreign investors. The potential economic bonanza raises the question of which countries are entitled to a share in the windfall and how it will be apportioned among them.

International law stipulates that every state is entitled to exploit the natural resources of the seabed, including oil and gas, up to 200 nautical miles from its coast. Where the distance between two neighboring states is less than 400 nautical miles, the two must agree on a median line.

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The distance between Cyprus and Israel is approximately 260 nautical miles, so an as-yet unpublished agreement was signed by the two countries delimiting a median line. This line allows each state to exploit the natural resources of the seabed up to a distance of approximately 130 miles from its coast. The Tamar and Leviathan fields are well within Israel’s part of this 260-mile zone.

Turkey has raised vociferous objection to the Israel-Cyprus agreement, based on the country’s interest in ensuring that the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus also benefit from the gas income, even though the region is adjacent to the coast of the southern (Greek-speaking) Republic of Cyprus.

THE OTHER legal issue is delimiting the line between Israel and Lebanon.

The rule is that the maritime line commences where the land boundary meets the sea – i.e. Rosh Hanikra – and extends into the sea on a line drawn to connect points that are equidistant from the two coasts. To ensure an equitably drawn maritime line, the geographical features of the coasts, such as headlands and bays, must be taken into account. Since no two coastlines are identical, the establishment of such a maritime boundary requires agreement between the two states.

While the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields are well on the Israeli side of any possible Israel-Lebanon maritime boundary, it’s possible that future fields may straddle such a line. For this reason, it is imperative that Lebanon and Israel define a boundary, but so far Lebanon has shown no willingness to enter negotiations.

Lebanon has a vital interest in exploiting gas and oil fields opposite its coast, and therefore it’s safe to assume it will want to reach an agreement on a maritime boundary either explicitly or by acquiescence. Furthermore, investment in and exploitation of gas and oil fields is obviously conditional on being able to offer investors a secure and stable environment.

Egypt has also reached an agreement with Cyprus delimiting a common maritime boundary, and Egypt unilaterally marked its maritime boundary with the Gaza Strip. Israel has likewise unilaterally defined a maritime boundary with the Strip, so in the future it will have a wedgeshaped section of seabed to which it is entitled.

In the Gulf of Eilat, Israel has signed an agreement delimiting its maritime boundary with Jordan, and has an unwritten understanding with Egypt as to the border. However, it’s unlikely that there are exploitable gas or oil resources in the Gulf.

Despite recent bellicose statements from Lebanon, that business-orientated state may not wish to undermine its future economic development, meaning that a mutually agreed maritime boundary could be in the pipeline.

The writer teaches international law at Hebrew University, and is a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.

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