* 19 new wells to be drilled in next two years
* A serious spill could cripple Israel's coastal economy
* Environmental groups call for stricter regulation
By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM, Aug 7 Israeli officials said they
recognise the need to protect the unique and fragile marine
environment of the Levant basin in order to ensure the success
of the oil and gas industry there.
The promise of natural gas wealth is enticing an increasing
number exploration companies to the eastern Mediterranean, where
huge deposits were recently discovered and whose marine
ecosystem, Israel's influential environmental groups say, is now
potentially under threat.
Nearly half the Levant basin -- which holds an estimated 122
trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable natural gas - is in
Israeli economic waters. The rest lies off of Cyprus, Lebanon
"Protecting the environment and security is necessary for the
exploration industry to succeed. If, heaven forbid, a
catastrophe or severe damage happens, it will most likely freeze
or paralyze the industry for many years," Energy Minister Uzi
Landau told Reuters.
One of the biggest challenges in the Levant basin is the
depth of the wells. The largest fields so far discovered are
deeper than the site of the disastrous Gulf of Mexico spill in
2010, where rescue efforts were hindered so far beneath the
As a result, Israel is focussed on preventing any
Israel was caught by surprise when two of the past decade's
largest deep sea gas fields were discovered off its coast and it
has been trying to maintain order in the exploration frenzy that
Nineteen new wells are expected to be drilled in the next
two years at a cost of about $2 billion in a drilling area
larger than the country itself. The companies hope to find oil
in the layers beneath the gas deposits, as well.
U.S-Israeli consortiums led by Noble Energy and
Delek Energy were responsible for the discoveries at
Leviathan, with estimated reserves of 17 tcf, and Tamar, which
holds about 9 tcf of natural gas. ILD Energy recently
started drilling at the Sara field nearby.
DEEP SEA PERIL
Shortly after the colossal Leviathan gas field was
discovered in 2010, 80 miles (130 kilometers) off Israel's
coast, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that concerns for
irreversible environmental damage were being ignored.
"The deep-sea floor in the Levant is teeming with life of a
very special and unique kind," said Sergi Tudela, the head of
fisheries at WWF Mediterranean.
Tudela called for comprehensive environmental assessments to
determine how the drilling will affect the deep-sea ecosystems.
Landau's office is ultimately responsible for shaping the
country's nascent exploration industry, and he is conscious of
the perils of deep-sea drilling.
"The dilemma is not a simple one," Landau said. "We are
learning how to find the middle ground -- how to develop while
preserving environmental values."
Caution is crucial, he said, and there is still much to be
Indeed, there has already been indications that these
projects may be technically challenging.
In May, Noble had to suspend drilling at one of its wells at
the Leviathan field where it hoped to find oil due to technical
problems. At 21,400 feet, the deepest known penetration in the
Levant basin, they were forced to stop because of high well
pressure and the mechanical limits of the wellbore design.
In Israel, environmental protection groups have notable sway
and have managed to hold up the construction of new reception
stations along the coast, leaving the country in the precarious
position of having just one gas pipeline coming ashore.
They are also petitioning a government panel, which is
setting long-term policy for the natural gas sector, to hold
firms to higher standards and to make sure market conditions are
not overly attractive, saying it would encourage risky behavior.
The committee's final recommendations are due in the coming
weeks. No delays in exploration or production are expected,
officials say, and one or two new gas receiving facilities will
likely be built on the Israeli coast in the coming years.
But concerns over environmental damage could complicate
preparations required by companies.
Last month a team of experts from the U.S. Department of
Interior came to Israel to share tips on how to best proceed and
lessons from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"We in Israel, it needs to be said, don't have the ability
to deal with events of that magnitude," Rani Amir of the Marine
and Coastal Environment Division at Israel's Ministry of
Environmental Protection said after meeting the U.S. experts.
In the meantime, regulators are focusing on prevention.
Landau said his Energy Ministry has already been stepping up
demands from drilling companies, drafting new provisions on
monitoring and emergency response plans, insurance requirements
and performance guarantees.
Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Environmental Protection,
warned that Israel's short and crowded coast along the
Mediterranean -- a closed body of water -- is relatively more
susceptible to pollution and spills than many countries.
"With deep-sea drilling, in water deeper than a kilometer
and a half and drilling more than four kilometers, it's clear
that with all the good will and professionalism ... accidents
happen," he said at a recent conference.
"(An environmental disaster here) can damage neighboring
countries. It can even damage our relations with our neighbors,"
he said. "And that is without mentioning the economic collapse
or damage to strategic facilities."