Potential Gas Conflict in the Mediterranean

By Nizar Abdel-Kader

In January 2009, Israeli oil company Delek and US Noble Energy Company discovered (some 55 miles off the coast of Haifa) a large natural reservoir known as "Tamar", which holds an estimated eight trillion cubic feet of gas. Early in 2010, another offshore gas field called "Leviathan" with a potential of 16 trillion cubic feet was discovered. Once exploited, these two fields could provide Israel with more than its domestic demand and turn Israel into a major exporter of natural gas.

Subsequently, in 2012, Cyprus, with the help of an Israeli company and Noble Energy, discovered a gas reservoir that could make the small island energy independent for 200 years. This gas find of eight trillion cubic feet was called "historic" by the Cyprus government. According to a press announcement by Charles D. Davidson, Noble Energy's president, this was the fifth natural gas field discovered by Noble Energy in the Levant Basin. A US geological survey published in 2009 claimed that there were 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel and Gaza, in addition to 1.7 billion cubic meters of oil.

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Awakened by the Israeli gas discoveries, Lebanese politicians made a series of provocative statements, and Hizballah issued a warning pledging to defend Lebanon's natural resources. Israel responded in kind, stating that its military would not hesitate to protect the gas fields.

After several months of political bickering, Lebanon's parliament endorsed in August 2011 a draft law demarcating the country's maritime boundaries with Israel and Cyprus. A few months later, the Israeli government unilaterally mapped out Israel's maritime boundaries with Lebanon, which Lebanese authorities (as well as Hizballah) argue infringe on Lebanon's economic zone by 850 square kilometers. As a matter of fact, Lebanon earlier reached an agreement with Cyprus, but the agreement was never ratified by Lebanon due to fears that the Turkish government might express reservations, thus jeopardizing economic interests between Turkey and Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have asked the United Nations to help in establishing a temporary sea boundary between Lebanon and Israel, a maritime line equivalent to the blue line established by the UN in 2000, but the UN has been reluctant to assume this potentially thankless task.

Both Israel and Lebanon have trillions of cubic feet of underwater natural gas and can benefit tremendously from these resources. However, the problem remains that they need UN assistance in facilitating indirect negotiations between them to help demarcate the boundary line. Such a process usually occurs through bilateral negotiations or mutually-agreed arbitration. However, because the two countries remain in a state of war, no such opportunity exists. Experts advise that Lebanon and Israel could exploit the gas in the disputed area jointly through what is called "unitization" by dividing the gas then together developing the reservoir according to each side's relative portion. Otherwise, each side could drill separately, but this practice would be damaging to the reservoir.

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Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst and columnist at Ad-Diyar Newspaper in Beirut and author of several books dealing with regional political and security issues.

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