East Med gas boom: A cautionary tale

April 10, 2013 at 3:35 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 10 (UPI) -- The energy industry is focusing on the eastern Mediterranean these days, particularly with speculation that the Israel-Turkey reconciliation could produce an undersea gas pipeline and Lebanon moving to open up its offshore acreage for exploration.

But the geopolitical convulsions in a high-octane region, and the thorny question of who's going to fund these projects by investing in them, will dictate commercial developments in the years ahead.

And, says U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor, there's the vexing question of verifying the extent of the natural gas reserves that have been discovered.

Israel, which began production March 30, estimates it has 25-30 trillion cubic feet. Cyprus claims it has 60 tcf, but that's probably a gross overestimate.

Lebanon's energy minister, Gibran Bassil, claims his country's maritime zone holds at least 25 tcf.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the Levant Basin, embracing Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Israel and Cyprus, contains an estimated 123 tcf.

The big problem for all these countries on the cusp of energy independence and lucrative gas exports is they need outside investment to get their emerging energy industries off the ground.

The eastern Mediterranean is where multiple regional conflicts intersect -- Israel's disputes with Palestine and Lebanon, with which it is still technically at war; the age-old rivalry between Greece and Turkey and the division of Cyprus; the Syrian civil war, and the threat it will spill over into neighboring states.

On top of that, there's Europe's problems with its reliance of Russian gas imports, and Russia's energy quarrels with Turkey, which wants to become the main east-west energy corridor.

Western companies shied away from investing in Israel's new energy industry for fear this would compromise their dealings with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, fallout from the Arab Boycott of Israel imposed 60 years ago.

A couple of months ago, Australian energy company Woodside broke the ice and bought a stake in Israel's big Leviathan field.

Now Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world's leading oil multinationals, is considering whether to sell its $7 billion, 23 percent stake in Woodside to avoid Arab ire.

In March, Israel and Turkey, once strategic allies, appeared to reconcile, with a little help from U.S. President Barack Obama, after a three-year split.

That swiftly triggered speculation that Israel, looking for an export outlet, was considering an undersea pipeline to Turkey, which has no energy resources of its own but wants to become the primary energy hub between Russia and Central Asia and the West.

But that would mean Israel scrapping discussions with the Greek Cypriots to jointly develop gas fields and export to Europe via Greece.

However, the Greek Cypriots are broke and desperate to cash in on their newfound energy wealth.

Russia, which has complex relationships with all the regional players, wants to get its hands on the Greek Cypriots' gas by bailing them out.

"The Israel-Turkey pipeline makes Lebanon and Cyprus nervous," observed energy analyst Jen Alic of OilPrice.com.

"It essentially cuts them out of the equation. Politics for now will keep Lebanon from connecting up to any Israeli pipeline, and Turkey won't have a connector to Cyprus."

If Israel cooperates with the Greek Cypriots, whose waters border Israel's, it risks antagonizing Turkey.

But if it does a deal with Turkey, it risks ticking off the Russians who're talking about investing in Israel's gas fields.

The Greek Cypriots are going nuts. They're sitting on enough gas to satisfy their own requirements for 200 years, but they need to export to get out of the financial black hole dug for them by a feckless banking sector.

Russia might help them there, but it would probably be on terms that greatly favor Moscow. That would incense Turkey, which has ruled the northern part of Cyprus since 1974 invasion.

"In each of these cases, there is a substantial gap between the strategic intent of the player and the actual likelihood of their plans coming to fruition," Stratfor observed.

"This is a common trait of energy politics, since loose estimates of reserves can quickly evolve into grand strategies before the first feasibility is even conducted.

"The eastern Mediterranean will continue to attract a lot of attention in the coming years, but actions driven by geopolitical desire don't always yield tangible commercial results."

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