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Tensions Boil as Israeli Oil Riches Grow
News From Around the World
Monday, June 25, 2012
Ed DeShields

Israel’s once hidden oil riches are now certain to be so large its treasures could make it the richest oil country in the world.  And, its neighbors are not only noticing, they’re boiling mad.

It was just forty years ago when Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel once famously quipped, “Why did Moses lead us to the one place in the Middle East without oil?” 

Well Prime Minister, Moses turned out to have a pretty good eye for what a promised land might look like.

Since oil was first discovered in the Middle East, Israel has been cut off from the world’s exploration resources because of its Arab neighbors.  No major oil company would dare explore there in fear of an Arab backlash.  Over time technologies in oil exploration have improved and international experts have noticed Israel’s potential. 

In the past, oil-exploration adventurers would visit Israel, some of them reminiscent of Indiana Jones, arguing enthusiastically that there had to be legendary oil reserves in the promised land. The adventurers picked their drilling sites according to concealed hints in the Tanach, especially Yehezkel, but the drillings ended in disappointment.  The legend of oil riches in Israel turned into a cruel joke.  They simply didn’t know what they were looking for and didn’t have the proper technology to find it. 

But, in the last three years Israel has discovered one mega-discovery after another.  First, it discovered 1.5 billion barrels of oil onshore at Rosh Ha'Ayin, located about 10 miles inland from the Tel Aviv coastline.  It was a small but important find that sparked a flurry of exploration activity.

Then, a big one followed by another – both are noteworthy, and rare, and are the largest finds anywhere in the last decade.  US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates, the entire Leviathan Basin holds 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 700 billion cubic meters of recoverable gas.

Expert surveys for the Tamar field conducted by the U.S. petroleum consultants Netherland, Sewell & Associates indicate that the field contains proven reserves of 217 billion cubic meters of gas.

And then another find.  It turns out that Israel has the second-biggest oil shale deposits in the world, outside the US:

"We estimate that there is the equivalent of 250 billion barrels of oil here. To put that in context, there are proven reserves of 260 billion barrels of oil in Saudi Arabia, says Dr. Harold Vinegar, the former chief scientist of Royal Dutch Shell."

Let’s do the math.  That’s 250 billion in shale oil, 3.2 billion in conventional oil in estimated reserves, or enough oil to match that of Saudi-Arabia.  Plus, that’s 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, giving it about 10% of the entire world’s gas reserves -- all while Israel’s exploration activities are just beginning.

I’d say most rational people would say this is nothing short of a miracle.  But one man’s miracle is not a miracle to another.  Economic miracles tend to upset a lot of sovereigns eager to get their share – whether they can legitimately claim it or not.   The backlash has begun and the geopolitical crisis now playing out will be worthy of the most serious prophetic predictions

Israel, whose exploration is the most advanced, is making plenty of new discoveries. Cyprus, too, is on the cusp of energy riches and (Iranian backed) Lebanon is anxious to launch exploration of its waters.

As would have it, all this excitement is exacerbating old rivalries between Israel and Lebanon and between Turkey and Greece, with Russia, Syria, Egypt and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip likely to get drawn into some serious drama.

Worse yet, Russia is determined to rival Turkish ambitions for regional influence and cannot help being dragged into the conflict.

Unfortunately, Israel is seemingly giving Russia the cold shoulder.  As late as last week, the Russian government-backed oil producer Rosneft held consultations on possible participation in the development of Israel's offshore natural gas fields, but emerged from the negotiations with no "effective offers."  This geopolitical snub won’t go unnoticed by Russia.

Last month, Turkey, a former strategic ally of Israel and now one of its most strongest critics, warned other major international companies seeking exploration licenses from the Greek Cypriot government, (Israel's new ally), to stay away. Predictably, Israel responded by dispatching military protection to the seas over its oil interests.

Turkey has now warned it will stop Israel from unilaterally exploiting gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean and suggests it is prepared to respond with force to make its point.

And that, according to geopolitical experts poses a direct challenge to U.S. policy.  The U.S. has a strong interest in eastern Mediterranean with countries finding and exploiting offshore reserves.  But the U.S. has its hands-full politically, and is ill-prepared financially to support any new conflict.  It currently borrows every dollar it needs to run its military and the American people aren’t going to favor any new conflict they have to pay for – even if it were necessary to protect Israel.   

It is the long-running issue of war-divided Cyprus between Turkey and Greece that is the real key to understanding Turkey's squabbles with Israel.

Here’s why.  

Cyprus was split into Greek and Turkish zones when the Turks invaded in 1974 and seized the northern one-third of the Cyprus island.

Recent discoveries of natural gas are thus encouraging Turkey to renew its diplomatic campaign on behalf of “Turkish Cypriots" in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  Why?  For the gas and oil it claims to own.  Thus, Turkey is launching its own exploration in and around Cyprus and any major strikes it may make (and it will) will only fuel the crisis.  So Turkey and Israel aren’t seeing eye-to-eye and are willing to fight over it.

So, the next big boom (sorry for the pun) is firmly centered on Cyprus.

Tensions recently escalated when the Greek Cypriot government (the legitimate Cypress government recognized by the U.N.) started pushing to open up its Aphrodite field off the southern coast.  It’s a whopper that's likely to match the Israelis' biggest field, the Leviathan. Worse yet, it’s probably a geologic extension of the Israeli-owned Leviathan.

Aphrodite contains an estimated 22 trillion cubic feet of gas and sizeable oil deposits as well.

On May 19th, Turkey drew a line in the sand.  "Turkey will not allow any activity in these fields," the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared.

But 15 companies and consortiums, including Russia's Novatec, Eni of Italy, France's Total and Petronas of Malaysia are all seeking licenses to drill in Aphrodite and 11 other exploration blocks off (Israel friendly) southern Cyprus. 

So get this picture into your mind.  There’s a crowd forming that could turn into an angry mob with everyone wanting to plunder Israel’s newly found riches. 

The Israeli’s and Cyprus plan is to funnel their gas through a joint pipeline through Greece to Western Europe to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia for most of its gas.  Mr. Putin, the Russian President, isn’t happy about the possibilities of losing a big customer for its natural gas production.   

On the other hand, Turkey is determined to restore it's historical influence across the Middle East and Central Asia by applying pressure to transform its resource-poor country into the key energy hub between east and the west – a direct challenge to an Israel/Cypress plan to pipe oil and gas through Greece on to Italy to fuel the rest of Europe. 

That increases the stakes in the eastern Mediterranean, with Russia, one of the world's top oil and gas powers, trying to find a way to cash in on the boom.

Moscow is nervous about Turkey's ambitious regional plans.  Russian President Putin also intends to restore Moscow's Cold War influence in the region.

That places Russia and Turkey on opposite sides, including in the Syrian civil war.  Moscow backs the Damascus regime, a longtime client; Turkey supports the rebels. And, neither appreciates Israel’s newly found oil power, which threatens the entire eastern Mediterranean’s balance of power. 

Moscow is not without some links to the riches.  It has strong links with the Greek Cypriots but its offers to help Cyprus is motivated in part by the prospect of losing Russia's naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, it's only toehold in the Mediterranean.  If the Syrian regime falls, Russia loses its military base in the region.  So it's seeking an alternative base for its Black Sea Fleet in Cyprus – the epicenter of the oil discoveries.  

Syria too, has great riches off its coast; a fact not lost on Russia.  If the Syrian regime falls it is certain that Russia’s desire to pick up the pieces (for its own) will be irresistible.

In summary, we have a newly enriched Israel powerful enough to completely change the geopolitics of the Middle East on one side.  On the other, we have Turkey, determined to cash in – with force if necessary – to establish its own claim to riches while Russia, with its impoverished Muslim regional allies seeking attention.  Then there’s Persian-backed Lebanon, in need of development funding for its significant rich fields just offshore of it’s own border.  

As the old saying goes, “the best way to get attention is to start a fight.”

And, that’s exactly what will happen.

About Ed DeShields

Last week: Why Our Budget Cannot Be Balanced



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