Israel: An energy superpower?

With Israel poised to become a player in the big energy league, the Middle East political kaleidoscope is about to be given a good shaking.

Tamar natural gas rig 370 (photo credit: Albatross)
Tamar natural gas rig 370
(photo credit: Albatross)
Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!
–    Golda Meir, 10 June 1973
To misquote William Wordsworth: “Golda, thou should’st be living at this hour!”      Sitting fairly and squarely within Israel’s territorial waters – although spilling out somewhat to the North and East – and encompassing about 83,000 square miles, is the so-called “Levant basin.” In April 2010, the US Geological Survey estimated that no less than 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas were recoverable from this vast and long unsuspected energy reserve. A year later, In the light of subsequent discoveries, their estimate was upped to 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.    It was back in the 1950s that Israel first tried drilling for oil – and indeed a small oilfield was discovered at Heletz, south of Ashdod and close to the Gaza strip. No-one – and certainly not Golda Meir – realized that Heletz was the extreme southern tip of vast oil and gas reserves stretching far into the Mediterranean. So for a further fifteen years it was only perfunctory on-shore exploration that continued, with a marked lack of commercial success.    By the late 1960s, however, the technology for drilling off-shore for gas and oil in extremely difficult ocean conditions was being rapidly developed, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil and off the coast of the United Kingdom. Israel licensed its first offshore exploratory well in 1969. 
The huge financial risks involved in this type of enterprise are illustrated by the simple fact that it took no less than thirty years for the first offshore energy discovery in Israeli waters. It was not until 1999 that a partnership between the US-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group and Avner Oil stumbled upon the Noa and Mari-B gas fields. Situated no more than 60 kilometers from the coast, and lying almost in a straight line from that first on-shore oil well, Heletz, they were small but significant finds running along the western edge of the Levant Basin.
In 2004 Israel’s Electric Company fueled one of its power stations with Israeli natural gas – and began the process of making Israel self-sufficient in energy. The process was confirmed in 2009 with the discovery of the Tamar and Dalit fields, 100 kilometers off Israel’s northern coast. Tamar’s and Dalit’s reserves are estimated at over 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a quantity sufficient to meet Israel’s natural gas needs for over 20 years.
At the time this seemed a sufficient stroke of good fortune. The idea that Israel might become a major exporter of energy was in nobody’s mind.
Not, that is, until late 2010, when the Noble partnership struck a huge natural gas find in the Leviathan well, the largest deep-water gas discovery of the decade. The gas-bearing strata contains some 17 trillion cubic meters of gas, but beneath it, about 6,500 meters below the Mediterranean sea-bed, there is an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil waiting to be extracted. Noble Energy intend to start drilling the well to the oil strata before the end of 2013.
"The deepest oil well drilled in Israel’s 65-year history may be the most important," said Bloomberg, the authoritative business market source. "While explorers have found enough natural gas in the past five years to turn Israel into an exporter, a major oil discovery would break new ground.” 
Not only would it guarantee domestic supplies for decades ahead – Israel currently spends about $10 billion a year importing 98% of the oil it uses – but it would increase tax revenue and boost the country’s balance of payments. It would, in short, mean big money. 
The political implications of Israel joining the gas and oil exporting nations is less easy to assess. Oil certainly means power, but power – especially attached to the Jewish nation – is a two-edged sword. In a world in which global anti-Semitism is on the increase, as Daniel Goldlhagen recently pointed out: “nothing incites anti-Semites more than the specter of Jews being powerful.”
On the other hand energy and money are powerful tools for any nation to possess, and Israel seems poised to acquire both in increasing amounts over the foreseeable future, for new finds are still coming on line. The Karish (“shark) offshore gas field, some 100 kilometers northwest of Haifa, was found in June 2013 with reserves of 12.7 million barrels of condensate on top of its potential 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
So the political ball could run in a different direction. Israel’s energy partnerships could have a beneficial political fallout. The US, Russia and Australia are already major shareholders in one or other of the gas and oil developments, and in February 2013 Russia’s Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the Tamar and Dalit fields. Industry sources assume that Russia will wish to expand its activities into Leviathan and beyond. These enormously valuable deals inevitably carry with them a political implication – namely that nothing will be allowed to jeopardize the the huge profits that flow from the commercial partnership. Strengthened ties with Russia might be one immediate result of Israel’s new standing in the world of energy.
There may be other, if less significant, political benefits. For example, Israel might export gas to Egypt, according to Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom.
"Egypt, which is currently experiencing a shortage of gas,” he said. “is showing interest in buying gas from Israel. If it turns out that they do want gas, I see no reason why not to [sell it].”
Then there is Turkey. Industry sources say that Turkey’s Zorlu Energy is in talks with Israeli firms over the potential for a pipeline to carry Israeli natural gas to Turkey. Zorlu Energy holds a 25% stake in Dorad Energy, which is building a 875-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Ashkelon. Other Turkish companies including Turcas Petrol are also interested in a pipeline project. Such a project, which could be worth $3.5 billion, would entail construction of an undersea section to Turkey’s southern coast and a link to central Turkey. The political rift between the two countries is holding up progress, but the imperatives of the energy market might even find a way round that obstacle.
With Israel poised to become a player in the big energy league, the Middle East political kaleidoscope is about to be given a good shaking. Who can forecast the resulting pattern?
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (