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East Med gas bonanza has many perils

Dec. 31, 2010 at 7:31 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Confirmation that the Leviathan natural gas field off Israel contains reserves of at least 16 trillion cubic feet, the largest gas discovery of the decade, could trigger an exploration boom across the eastern Mediterranean, but those who take part face many perils.

Leviathan, and three other gas fields found off Israel, lies on a continental shelf that runs from Syrian waters at the extreme end of the eastern Mediterranean, through Lebanese and Israeli waters to the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip and Egypt, which is already a gas exporter.

Israel, with whom Egypt signed a landmark peace treaty in 1979, the first between the Jewish state and an Arab neighbor, is one of Cairo's main gas customers.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported earlier this year that the Mediterranean's Levantine Basin, covering around 32,000 square miles, could hold 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas -- that's around half the United States' proven gas reserves -- and around 1.7 billion barrels of oil.

The problem is that these riches, lying up to 3 miles beneath the seabed, are inextricably woven into the seemingly intractable conflicts that plague the region, especially the Arab-Israeli struggle that now encompasses Iran as well.

If gas is found in sufficient recoverable quantities off Syria, one of Israel's most implacable foes and a key Iranian ally, that could have a major impact on the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

Lebanon, once again under the influence of Syria, has already claimed that the Leviathan field runs into its waters.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, also supported by Syria, has warned it won't permit the Jewish state to plunder Lebanon's maritime assets.

Israel says it will use military force to defend its newfound gas fields, which if estimates of their size are correct could provide the Jewish state's energy needs for the next 100 years as well as transform the traditionally energy-poor state into a significant exporter of gas.

Iran, seeking to expand its influence into the Levant, has already offered to help the Lebanese develop their potential energy wealth.

So have the Russians, further complicating the geopolitical scrimmage that's developing over Israel's gas bonanza.

Whether foreign companies are prepared to risk investing in such a violence-prone region is questionable, particularly since Israel's adversaries don't want to see it strengthened by its newfound energy wealth at the expense of its neighbors.

The Palestinians, struggling to achieve an independent state in land still occupied by Israel, found gas off the Gaza Strip in 2000.

But Ariel Sharon, who became Israel's prime minister in February 2001, refused to allow them to develop the find, dubbed the Gaza Marine Field, which was awarded to the Palestinian Authority under the 1993-94 Oslo Accords.

Britain's BG energy company surveyed the field and estimated it contained at least 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially a big boost for the Palestinians' resource-poor economy.

Some in Sharon's government wanted to buy the gas from the PA, since at that time the impoverished, blockaded Palestinians didn't constitute a large enough market for the gas and probably still don't.

Israel under Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. Two years later, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement it took and claimed the Gaza field.

Israel refuses to recognize the Hamas regime but it might be more flexible if the PA, dominated by the mainstream Fatah movement and Israel's so-called peace partner, regained control of Gaza.

Another dispute is simmering on the divided island of Cyprus, which lies west of Israel and is also rushing to join the gas bonanza.

It has recently signed maritime zoning agreements with Israel and Lebanon that define their territorial waters.

But Turkey and Greece, both Mediterranean powers and historic rivals, one Christian, one Muslim, are at odds over Cyprus.

Turkey invaded the Greek-majority island in 1974 after a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriot hardliners intended to unite the island with mainland Greece.

The Turks seized the northern one-third of the island and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Only Ankara recognizes it.

Turkey bitterly opposes plans by the Greek Cypriots to explore for oil and gas because any strikes they make aren't likely to be shared with the TRNC. Turkey plans its own exploration effort.

© 2010 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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