JERUSALEM: Recent discoveries of massive offshore natural gas deposits, set to begin flowing in the coming days, are turning into a mixed blessing for Israel.
The deposits are expected to provide Israel enough natural gas for decades and transform the country, famously empty of natural resources, into an energy exporter. Yet selling this gas overseas will require Israel to navigate a geopolitical quagmire that risks angering allies and enemies alike. Amid this uncertainty, Israel still has not formulated an export policy.
“Instead of being an ingredient which serves to calm the tensions of the eastern Mediterranean, [the discoveries] provide instead another impetus for rivalry,” said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is a reason this is often called diplomatically trapped gas.”
Israel discovered two large fields, Tamar and the heftier Leviathan, in 2009 and 2010. Tamar, which holds an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet, is set to begin pumping to the Israeli market in the coming days, while Leviathan, which boasts an estimated 16 to 18 trillion cubic feet of gas, is expected to go online in 2016, the approximate time when exports are expected to begin.
The discoveries are just a portion of the huge reserves in the Levant Basin, which the United States Geological Survey estimated in 2010 holds some 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.
While Israel’s finds are minimal compared to gas giants Russia, Iran or Qatar, they are more than enough for the country’s domestic needs and would enable the country to reduce its reliance on costlier and dirtier oil and coal. Nearby Cyprus has also become newly resource-rich, and Israel’s other neighbors, including enemies, may discover their own deposits.
In all, Israel has just the world’s 46th largest supply of proven natural gas reserves, according to the CIA Factbook. But the country’s proximity to Middle Eastern and European markets could make it an important regional player. For oil companies hoping to profit from the new wealth, the biggest hurdle remains the lack of an export policy.
“The challenge we face now is ... the failure to decide on export,” said Bini Zomer, an official in Israel with Noble Energy, the Texas-based company that has led exploration efforts. “The policymakers seem to lack a sense of urgency.”
The challenges are many. Cooperating with Cyprus risks antagonizing Turkey. The neighboring Arab countries Egypt and Jordan might provide opportunity, albeit with some political risk.