Natural Gas: Israel’s Game Changer
After discovering natural gas offshore, Israel is poised to become an energy exporter. It’s a big deal.
It wasn’t long ago that Israel’s oil and gas industry was the territory of wishful thinkers like John Brown, a born-again Christian from Texas who saw a map to oil gushers in readings of the Bible. In the 1980s, I interviewed his site manager, also a born-again Christian, who told me that the Lord had bequeathed oil to his chosen people. In a cluttered cabin in the hills of central Israel, the rangy Texan leafed through his copy of the Bible and read me Deuteronomy 33:24: Of Asher he said, More blessed than sons is Asher. May he be favored by his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil.
Asher and his descendants hadn’t found oil, the prospector said, but they just didn’t know where to look—or have the tools we have today. For guidance, he indicated another verse, Deuteronomy 32: 12-13: The Lord alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him. He made him ride on the high places of the earth, and he ate the produce of the field. And He made him suck honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock.
“High places—rock—there’s oil here somewhere,” the prospector continued, throwing his arms wide to include all the hills and forests and distant sea. However, after years of searching the desert and rocky wastes, he confessed: “Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe they meant olive oil.”
Israel is blessed in the olive oil department, but from its founding had no choice but to import all of its energy—oil, gas and coal. Golda Meir often joked that God had guided the Jewish people through the desert to the only land in the Middle East with no oil. To date, little on-shore oil has been found, although there is still hope. But after many failed attempts by offshore drilling companies, a young Israeli lawyer named Gideon Tadmor got it right. Egypt, he theorized, had discovered commercial quantities of natural gas in the Mediterranean, and there was no reason the gas fields would stop at Israel’s maritime border.
In 1991, Tadmor, who had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, founded Avner Energy with his uncle, David Cohen. “When I finished law school I gave the diploma to my mother. I told her, ‘Now hang it on the wall and leave me—let me live my own life.’”
Today, looking back, justifiably smug and a good deal wealthier, the 50-year-old Tadmor partly echoes the faith of his Christian predecessors: “Obviously we needed luck and God’s help. We needed the resources to be underground. But I think the unique contribution that we were able to bring is the human spirit and belief.”
More than that, Tadmor needed experience and money, and because he wanted to drill deep into the seabed, far offshore, he sought investment from the Texan oil giants. Nobody bit; they were afraid, he believes, of upsetting their much bigger customers, the Arabs. Finally a small Houston-based company, with no Arab clients, known today as Noble Energy, agreed to supply most of the capital, the drilling technology and the analytic skills needed to interpret seismic data used to determine good places to drill.
Tadmor’s company, with partners Noble and the Israeli Delek Group, found several small gas fields and then two large ones, propelling Israel into a new energy realm: Today, Israel’s known gas reserves are 30 trillion cubic feet (tcf), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says there’s at least twice that amount still to be discovered in Israeli waters. That exceeds Israel’s energy needs for the next 30 to 50 years. Moreover, the USGS predicts there are 1.7 billion barrels of oil gas basins as well.
Tadmor and his partners control almost all the gas, but there is no doubt that the new energy industry will revolutionize Israel’s economy, as well as provide the country with greater strategic and political clout. But the new discoveries have also opened up a Pandora’s Box of thorny social, financial, security and foreign policy concerns.
In 2009, Tadmor and Noble hit upon their first “gusher,” the Tamar reservoir (9 tcf), 56 miles off Israel’s coast. It took $3.25 billion, and four years from conception to operation of their first platform, using equipment manufactured in Corpus Christi, Texas, and hauled across 7,000 miles of sea. The natural gas—which lies under at least 5,000 feet of water and more than a mile beneath the seabed—began flowing in March 2013.
The timing was fortuitous. In 2005, Israel had signed a 15-year agreement with Cairo to buy natural gas. But with the advent of the Arab Spring, the pipeline traversing the Sinai repeatedly fell victim to Arab saboteurs, leading to electricity shortages in Israel. Then in 2012, the Egyptian government cancelled the agreement altogether. The loss of the Egyptian gas turned out to be only a minor crisis, and one easily bridged by a few months of gas imported via tankers.
Already, the Tamar field supplies the bulk of Israel’s natural gas needs, including 40 percent of electric power. The gas is funneled by natural pressure more than 100 miles through two pipelines to the Tamar platform, a distance of 110 miles off the coast, where it is processed. It is then piped to a terminal onshore in Ashdod to be fed to several power stations, which convert the gas into electricity to power Israel’s electric grid.
In 2010, a year after finding the Tamar field, Noble discovered the much larger Leviathan reservoir (17 tcf) about 80 miles off the coast of Haifa. Once Leviathan comes on line, around 2017, Tadmor and his partners will be able to do far more than provide Israel’s energy needs. The potential financial windfall has Israel’s economists and politicians starry-eyed. “Israel will soon be a net exporter of energy, and this is a tremendous boost to the Israeli economy, and will therefore strengthen its political, geopolitical and diplomatic position in that part of the Middle East,” says Simon Henderson, a Middle East energy analyst and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a big deal. Most people don’t realize what a big deal this is.”
Nevertheless, Henderson says, the finds need to be put in perspective. “The amount of gas in Israel is not big in terms of the world,” he says. “This doesn’t mean that Israel is going to have bigger energy resources than Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait or Iran, even if Israel discovers all the gas—and oil—predicted. Iran, for example, currently has nearly 1,200 tcf, compared to Israel’s 30 tcf. Israel’s potential reserves may be only as high as 100 tcf.”
Israel is already wrestling with how this newly found wealth should be used. Having made huge investments, oil and gas companies such as Noble are anxious for high returns made possible by exports. In response, last June, the Israeli cabinet decided to allocate 60 percent for domestic use and to export the rest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the gas “a gift from nature” that could earn Israel $60 billion in tax and royalties.
The 40 percent export figure is way too high for some critics. Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, one of the most vocal opponents of the government’s plans for its gas windfall, worries that too much of the export income will go to the military, which already consumes nearly 20 percent of Israel’s budget, more than other western nations. “Poverty is a bigger threat than security right now to Israel,” she says. “Prices are going up, salaries are going down, and social services like, for example, housing are being neglected. We should build a more viable and a more sustainable economy. And this is something that the natural gas can truly help us do.” Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, has called for spending the new revenue on education. “We’ve now found gas, let’s invest in the most important thing, in children,” Peres said over the summer.
Critics claim the 60-40 decision was pushed through the cabinet without the necessary parliamentary approval, but they lost when they challenged the cabinet decision in the Supreme Court. While the furor has not died down, Gilead Fortuna, head of the Center for Industrial Excellence at the Samuel Neaman Institute, has called the plan “a good compromise.” He says that further exploitation of Israel’s gas and oil resources depends on continuing foreign investment. “From experience gained worldwide, Israel’s gas resources will increase further if there is proper motivation for exploration,” he said last July in The Jerusalem Report.
While debate rages over how the money should be spent, economists warn of the potential inflationary impact of injecting billions of shekels annually into the Israeli economy. Stanley Fischer, the former head of the Bank of Israel (who is reported to be in line for the number two position at the U.S. Federal Reserve), has warned that Israel must avoid “the Dutch disease” by not allowing the money to flow too rapidly into the economy. This was the mistake the Netherlands made in the 1960s when it discovered gas. Revenue from gas exports pushed the Dutch guilder so high that the country’s other exports became too expensive to compete in international markets.
Then there’s the more positive example of Norway, which exports 87 percent of its gas and invests every dollar earned not in current projects but in a sovereign fund to benefit future generations. Today, with about $750 billion in assets, the country of five million people—fewer than Israel—has what is considered the largest sovereign fund in the world which will fund the country long after its gas and oil reserves run dry. Investment of Israel’s gas export earnings in a similar sovereign fund could prevent the shekel from becoming too strong and hurting Israel’s other exports.
Israel has established a sovereign fund to invest abroad, and gas-related contributions are expected to begin in 2017. Bank Leumi’s chief economist Gil Bufman, however, is concerned that capital is already flowing into the economy faster than it is going out, and would like to see the government build up the fund now. But with so many competing demands for investment at home—in the military, in national infrastructure and in social welfare, it is unlikely this will occur. It is even possible the one-to-two billion dollar per annum cash windfall could be spent before it is earned.
Israel can’t earn money from its gas bonanza unless it finds a way to export it, and all its options present myriad obstacles. “In oil and gas terminology,” says Henderson, “the gas, which is hard to get to and hard to get out, is called ‘trapped gas.’ I have also heard gas in the eastern Mediterranean referred to as being ‘diplomatically trapped.’”
Surrounded by hostile or unfriendly Arab nations, Israel is in a particularly tough position: It cannot export gas-generated power simply by transmitting the electricity through its neighbors’ power grids. One alternative is through pipelines.
With a large economy and a growing demand for energy, Turkey would be a natural pipeline terminus and would provide access to Europe, another major market. Several Turkish energy companies, seeking alternatives to expensive Russian gas, have expressed interest in acquiring rights to future production from the Leviathan field. However, Turkey’s current frayed political relations with Israel cloud prospects for an Israel-Turkey pipeline. In addition, Russia, a major exporter of natural gas to both Turkey and Europe, is wary of possible Israeli competition.
Another possible customer that could be reached by a long, albeit expensive, pipeline is Greece, which would give Israel another entry point to Europe. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s state visit to Jerusalem in October, which included discussions of energy infrastructure projects with both countries’ environment ministers, signaled significant improvement in the prospects for joint Israel-Greece cooperation. But even if cash-strapped Greece were able to raise the money for its share of investment, a Greco-Israel pipeline could enrage Turkey.
A more practical pipeline destination is Jordan, and Noble Energy sources say they are looking in this direction. “Jordan is in the most immediate need and would be the first client” for Israel, said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, commenting on negotiations last summer. Although more far-reaching proposals are under consideration, he noted that a pipeline connecting existing pipeline facilities on the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea to the Jordanian side could be completed “relatively quickly” and would “have great symbolic value both for Noble and Israel.”
Interestingly, another country in need of Israel’s gas is Egypt. Although Egypt has larger reserves than Israel, domestic demand, currently subsidized by the government, is high. Such a transaction, however, is unlikely given Egypt’s internal political situation, although discussions about the possibility of changing the direction of the Sinai pipeline are underway.
Israel will need to diversify distribution. Another option is to convert natural gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ship it by specially built tankers that can travel long distances. LNG is more flexible than pipelines are and expands the constellation of potential markets, but, in addition, tankers require construction of large, hugely expensive facilities ($5 billion and up, depending on size). An LNG terminal in Eilat would allow tankers to reach Europe and even more lucrative markets in Asia through the Red Sea. But there are risks: Terrorists could attack the tankers and enemy warships could seal the narrow Straits of Tiran. Passage through the Suez Canal, though technically protected by treaty, could be tricky if Egypt chooses not to cooperate. Another option is for Israel to liquefy its gas in Egypt, which has LNG plants with excess capacity, but this, too, may not be possible politically.
The Tamar platform, a massive structure weighing 34,000 tons and almost as high as the Eiffel Tower, is a sitting duck for Israel’s enemies. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have warned that Israel’s gas industry could be a strategic target. In response, the Tamar rig bristles with secret warning and defense systems, and the Israeli navy routinely patrols nearby, armed with anti-rocket defenses. In October, the navy ordered three domestically built fast attack boats and in December, it ordered two German frigates, to strengthen its presence. These are just the first concrete manifestations of a host of new security ramifications that come with being an energy-wealthy Middle Eastern nation.
Disputes over gas reserves have become de rigueur in the eastern Mediterranean. Although most of Israel’s known reserves sit within its maritime borders, Lebanon, with whom Israel is technically at war, claims a maritime border encroaching on Israel’s exclusive economic zone. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has warned Israel that Lebanon has the right to retaliate against Israel over gas and oil interests. Syria and the Palestinian Authority have put forward their own claims to some of the gas. Meanwhile, Turkey and Cyprus, still bitter over their 1974 war over northern Cyprus, are also arguing about gas ownership. And hovering darkly over it all is Turkey, which also wants a slice of the pie.
Israel’s “new visibility” to other regional energy players raises the potential for conflict on numerous fronts, says David Wurmser, a Washington, DC, political risk consultant and one-time advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney. The situation is “complex” and “extremely dangerous” says Wurmser.
Pinchas Avivi, director of strategic planning in Israel’s foreign ministry, would like nothing more than a Lebanese equivalent of the Tamar platform, funneling gas and money to Lebanon. “Then they would need stability as much as we do,” he says. “Economy is the first and most important means of diplomacy today. When everybody has gas, everybody will have the same interest to keep the arena calm. I can see many more possibilities of cooperation than danger.”
The gas reserves also dramatically shake up Israel’s foreign policy. In addition to adding new layers to its relationships with Russia, Turkey, Egypt and other countries in the region, Israel’s position as a gas exporter could transform relations with its closest ally, the United States. On December 19, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill to foster U.S.-Israeli collaboration in developing gas reserves. But this could change once gas exports are flowing. “Guestimates are that Israel will bring in $100 billion for the 20-year lifetime of the Tamar field alone,” says the Washington Institute’s Henderson. “This is big money, and it is likely to lead to a reexamination of the U.S.-Israel economic relationship.” What is the possible result of this reexamination? “If Israel is making a lot of money from its natural gas and times are hard in the United States, then there will be some who will question the need for the U.S. to continue to be generous in terms of economic and military aid to Israel.”
Martin Fletcher is a five-time Emmy award-winning television correspondent for NBC News, based in Tel Aviv. He is the author of four books, most recently Jacob’s Oath.
Additional reporting by George Johnson.