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Israeli navy grapples with defending Med gas fields

July 26, 2013 at 3:51 PM   |   Comments

HAIFA, Israel, July 26 (UPI) -- Amid signs Israel's effort to patch up relations with one-time ally Turkey is in difficulties, the prospect of exporting gas from offshore fields to Europe via a pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey would seem to be dimming.

That suggests more interest in a liquefied gas system aimed at lucrative exports to Asia via the Red Sea.

Either way, Israel's navy is trying to figure out how best to protect the Jewish state's expanding gas industry-- and if current plans work out, oil production as well -- from a wide spectrum of security threats that seem to be growing by the day amid the violence convulsing the Middle East.

Israel's Globes business daily reports the navy's at odds with the Defense Ministry over two bids to supply naval vessels from Germany and South Korea.

It seems the navy's top brass decided in April in favor of the German vessel, while the ministry favors the South Korean even though it's $105.4 million more expensive.

Globes said if the ministry decides to put the issue to tender, "it means a delay of almost three years in protecting the gas rigs, protection which was supposed to be ready this year."

The navy has said it needs a minimum of four 1,200-ton patrol-class warships to protect the offshore platforms, of which there are likely to end up being at least 20, up to 80 miles off Israel's coastline.

These will need to be armed with a range of weapons systems to counter different kinds of attack -- armed speedboats, torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, frogmen, suicide strikes, possibly even suicide air attacks.

The navy estimates the system will cost $700 million, plus $100 million more annually to maintain -- this at a time the Defense Ministry's having to make hefty budget cuts.

But the gas fields, currently estimated to contain around 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, are vital strategic assets that will earn an estimated $60 billion in export revenue over the next two decades.

Discussions between Israel and Turkey to end a rupture triggered by the Israeli naval commandos killing nine Turks when the navy intercepted a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip have deadlocked amid some acrimony, despite the personal intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Jerusalem Post Thursday quoted Israeli officials with knowledge of the deliberations as saying the Turks " are not interested in a diplomatic reconciliation, but rather in humiliating it and bringing to its knees."

There had been hopes the prospect of the undersea pipeline from Israel's gas fields for eventual delivery to Europe, cutting its dependence on Russian gas, would bring the two military powers back together as U.S. allies in a region undergoing profound change.

But security experts say the Turkish option, which involves infrastructure outside Israeli waters, is less secure than the main alternative, establishing a floating liquefied natural gas plant within Israel's security envelope.

Abraham Sofaer, former adviser to Noble Energy of Texas which discovered Israel's gas fields and is the majority stakeholder, told an energy conference in Tel Aviv: "Since distribution and transportation infrastructure are the most vulnerable aspects of oil and gas production, additional infrastructure and transport requirements beyond Israel's control could increase risks significantly."

He stressed nearly 70 percent of terrorist attacks on oil and gas facilities in 1999-2005 targeted pipelines and transport networks, while only 15 percent hit production facilities.

By using a floating LNG plant, he said, "all security efforts would be concentrated at the drilling platform and FLNG facility, thereby reducing other, greater risks in natural gas production and transportation. Experts regard the risks of protecting vessels transporting LNG significantly lower than those of protecting pipelines and other stationary facilities."

David Wurmser, founder and head of Washington's Delphi Global Analysis Group, observed in a recent paper Israel "will likely send the bulk of any gas it exports eastward," possibly from Eilat on the Red Sea, thus avoiding the Suez Canal.

"The new gas trade ... will echo the shift already under way in Israel's export patterns more broadly as Israel's economy increases trade with Asia while deceasing trade with Europe.

"This new energy trade and expanding hydrocarbon exports to Asia will coincide with and reinforce Israel's broader plan to offer a strategic alternative to the Suez Canal," Wurmser noted.

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