The Oil and the Glory

Could Israel relieve Europe’s Russia dependence?

Could Israel relieve Europe’s Russia dependence?

Is Europe, wishing for energy security and crispy winters indoors, looking in the right places for its natural gas salvation from a supply grip held by Russia?

As of now, Europe continues to cast its gaze 1,700 miles to the east in Baku, and across the Caspian Sea from there to gas-rich Turkmenistan. Breaking the news gently, Azerbaijan does not have the spare 30 billion cubic meters a year that Europe is seeking — it has about 5 billion cubic meters. As for Turkmenistan, it simply is not going to take on Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who opposes any such shipments.

Iran is off the table. Until it breaks a logjam with Baghdad, Kurdistan is too. Ukraine deals expected with Chevron and Shell may result in a bit of shale gas, the Financial Times reports. ExxonMobil and Austria’s OMV may add a similar volume from fields in the Black Sea.

Yet, all of this together is minuscule compared with the 20 billion cubic meters a year that Israel appears prepared to export in the form of liquefied natural gas starting in five years, as I write this week at EnergyWire. The volume is larger if you include gas discovered in adjacent Eastern Mediterranean fields in Cypriot waters, according to Houston’s Noble Energy, which is doing the drilling in both countries.

This is not the scale of gas that creates petro-states. But it will provide a tidy sum for Israel and Cyprus, and much of the gas that Europe is pursuing.

The finds are part of the Levant Basin, which, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, contains 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil underneath the waters of four countries — Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Oil drilling is also being carried out on- and off-shore in Israel (pictured above, drilling for kerogen last year near the Israeli kibbutz of Beit Guvrin).

For Israel, the gas is a win-win proposition regardless of how much it exports and to whom. The country probably could have seriously benefited from the profits decades ago. But Natan Sachs, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, told me that it is best for the country that the bonanza came now, when Israel’s economy is more mature. The reason? It is unlikely to contract the so-called resource curse, a malady of corruption and chronic poverty that tends to get entrenched in undeveloped petro-states. Sachs:

From an Israeli perspective, it’s an unmitigated blessing, and I would say from a social science perspective that it’s good, that it only came now and not much earlier when Israel might have become dependent on resource exports.

I checked out the idea of exports to Europe in a round of phone calls and emails, and heard almost wholly silence. One reason for the skepticism was that Europe’s consuming nations may get pushback from Arab oil and gas producers with which they already have supply agreements. Another was that, if a fixed pipeline were the conduit of the gas, it would probably need to traverse Syria before going on to Greece and the rest of Europe, and we all know what is going on in Syria. Yet a third was simply that commercial suppliers may not wish to commit so much volume to Europe when there is also a hungry Asia.

Of course, Noble’s idea is to export LNG from a gigantic offshore field called Leviathan, in which case this fuel could go anywhere, including Greece, China and so on. "You are going to be meeting all the needs of the [Israeli] domestic market for 25 years, and exporting for the next 20," Noble spokesman Bini Zomer told me.

A breakthrough in Syria could be a gamechanger, said Crispin Hawes, who watches the Middle East for the Eurasia Group. It would be felt in Lebanon, specifically by the powerful Syrian-supported paramilitary group Hezbollah. Hawes told me:

If the Assad regime collapses, that implies a different future for Hezbollah, which also has implications for the security of Israel’s northern border, and implications on Israel and Lebanon’s ability and willingness to negotiate an agreement on a shared maritime boundary, which at the moment is undefined.

Hawes said some Israeli gas will ultimately end up in Europe, but the volume and timing cannot be pinpointed because no one knows definitively when the LNG and export facilities will be built. It is not outlandish for the Europeans to make a Grecian landfall a priority.