While the South China Sea disputes rival with the Middle East events to hit the world media radar screen, the Mediterranean is emerging as home to some of the world’s richest deposits of energy. The sea-shore resources found are fabulous and the competition for drilling rights is launching a new impulse for tensions or the need for new policies.
On March 30, 2013 Israel began pumping its first offshore natural gas to boost economic growth and transform the country’s energy security in coming years. The Tamar Gas Field is the largest privately funded infrastructure project in Israeli history. Situated about 90 km off the coast of Haifa in northern Israel, it began to flow via pipeline to an onshore terminal at Ashdod in southern Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, «We are taking an important step toward energy independence.» Discovered in 2009 (around 90 kilometers west of Haifa), it holds an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. There is also a larger, but still undeveloped, Leviathan, which boasts an estimated 16 to 18 trillion cubic feet of gas. The field is expected to go online in 2016, the time export sales are to start. Leviathan would hold enough reserves to supply Israel's gas needs for 100 years. The companies are studying options, including exporting liquefied natural gas, or export via a pipeline, to Jordan or Turkey. Russian energy state company Gazprom has shown interest in working with the consortium drilling off Israel’s coast.
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. Huge underwater gas deposits have been recently discovered between Cyprus and Israel, who are to develop them jointly. They have become close allies.
The recent discoveries of enormous oil and gas reserves in the little-explored Mediterranean Sea between Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Syria and Lebanon suggest that the region could become literally a «new Persian Gulf». But there is a reverse side of the medal. New battles over rights to resources in the Levant Basin and Aegean Sea could spark tensions and military conflicts. Turkey insists the gas must be shared, it has sent ships to back its stance. Syria and Lebanon have their own claims. Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria are also advancing claims to the "Aphrodite" gas field off Cyprus…
Israel: hard choices
Before the finding, Israel was in a pretty fix. The Arab Spring toppled Mubarak, under whose regime Egypt had supplied some 40 per cent of Israeli natural gas. The gas pipeline from Egypt became the target of sabotage and disruptions. Now Israel is facing new challenges navigating the geopolitical quagmire. It still has not formulated an export policy and, probably, subsequent security arrangements.
Cooperating with Cyprus risks antagonizing Turkey. The neighboring Egypt and Jordan might provide opportunity, but there is some political risk. Europe is a potentially larger and more stable market, but reaching the continent is a logistical challenge. The most obvious route to Europe would be through Cyprus, then to Turkey. Cyprus fears that in case the alliance is renewed, Israel may instead opt to pipe its excess gas to Turkey directly to reach European markets. It would open the door to co-operation with Turkey, a large market and rising player on the global stage. A pipeline to Greece, connecting with Europe’s distribution system, would be longer, costlier and riskier. The demand in Europe is falling pulling prices lower. Exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to markets, where prices are high, would be an option. But it requires huge investments and a big coastal site. Israeli gas could be liquefied in Cyprus, but that would mean Israel ceding control. A floating LNG vessel, moored at the field, has also been mooted. The technology is new and, as yet, untested. Such a vessel would also be vulnerable to terrorism.
The maritime border between Lebanon and Israel is disputed. The Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah poses a formidable threat. Last year it sent a drone deep into Israel, covering more than enough of the distance needed to reach some of the gas fields. The group, backed by Israel’s enemy Iran, also says its rocket arsenal has the range to hit anywhere in Israel, which indicates more sophisticated technology.
The Gaza Strip is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into southern Israel. The platforms are within their range.
Actually the gas rigs are potentially vulnerable to attacks from the plethora of militant groups in Egypt, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Sending gas to a processing plant in Egypt is an iffy undertaking because the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is tenuous. There have already been at least a dozen pipeline attacks by militants in Egypt’s Sinai desert.
Still there also some opportunities at hand. Israel now has a stable source of energy to strengthen relationship with its neighbors, for instance it can provide energy to Jordan and Palestine. Jordan has also seen its gas supplies disrupted by the pipeline attacks in Egypt, it has to use oil to make electric plants run. So the country badly needs a stable source of energy. A peace agreement was signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994. A new impetus to commercial activities would help cement the peace.
A terrorist attack is dramatic with dire economic ramifications. It would hike the insurance rates to heights which would call into question the very feasibility of undertaking the project. It would undermine the will of foreign companies to do business in the area. The array of possible threats is impressive: boat bombs, drones, submarine vessels, rockets and missiles. The navy has adopted a theatre-wide defense, which entails the combining of intelligence, control, reconnaissance and physical presence. The service seeks to acquire four offshore patrol vessels that would serve as the backbone for the maritime defense strategy. The cost is $3 billion and it takes time to put them into operation. The construction will take over four years. The vessels are going to be cutting-edge platforms armed with the famous Iron Dome, Barak anti-ship missiles, the Vulcan Phalanx CIWS, a helicopter and other up-to-date systems.
Along with tasking the navy, Israel applies efforts to involve other countries into security arrangements. It would be propitious to remember that Greece and Israel signed a defense pact in September 2011. Although the terms of the Israeli-Greek mutual defence pact are not public, it is believed to include the protection of Cyprus’ military infrastructure. This provision may be regarded as an element of a more extended defense structure. Another is the cooperation agreement between the Greek and Israeli air forces, which have engaged in planning and exercises. These are the steps to build a solid basis. Israel, Cyprus and Greece have been holding intensive talks in recent months at the prime ministers’, ministerial, and chiefs-of-staff levels on offshore gas projects and regional security.
In March 2013 Israeli, Greek and US warships began a joint two-week Mediterranean naval exercise codenamed "Noble Dina". For several years, Israel and the US had carried out naval manoeuvres with Turkey, but in September 2011 Ankara suspended military cooperation with the Jewish state. Now the events have other participants. Obviously the Noble Dina's exercise is designed in part to practice defending offshore gas rigs. In November last year Israeli and US troops concluded a major missile defence exercise lasting more than three weeks and involving 3,500 personnel from the US European Command and 1,000 Israeli troops.