Mother Nature's distribution of oil and gas resources around the world suggests she has a mischievous sense of humor. In the Persian Gulf, South China Sea, and Caspian Sea, large fields lie in disputed zones between unfriendly neighbors.
Now we must add another hot spot to that list. New, giant, natural gas finds promise to transform the energy security and economy of Israel and, perhaps, its neighbors. But these treasures could hardly have been better placed to stir up trouble, complicating three of the world's most intractable conflicts: between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The recent sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations makes disputes over gas even more fraught with danger.
Golda Meir, the feisty, cantankerous, and quotable fourth Israeli prime minister, used to complain that Moses led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years to bring them to the only place in the Middle East without oil. In 2000, after Britain's BG had discovered significant volumes of gas at Gaza Marine, she was proved at least half-wrong when U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found a similar-sized field, Mari-B, in Israeli waters.
In 2009, though, Noble put these efforts completely into the shade. Some bold and creative geological thinking led it to find 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas in deep water at Tamar, the world's largest discovery that year. In late 2010, Noble uncovered an even larger field, aptly named Leviathan, containing 16 Tcf. These fields alone could meet U.S. gas demand for an entire year.
The Levant Basin, the geological area containing Tamar and Leviathan, spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates it could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves. Given that Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories between them have a population of less than 17 million, that's potentially a huge windfall.
The gas, therefore, suddenly eliminates one of Israel's key strategic and economic weaknesses: its lack of indigenous energy resources. Tamar alone could supply all of Israel's power plants for more than 20 years. And the discoveries are very timely, because Mari-B will be depleted by 2013 and because of the sudden insecurity of Egyptian gas imports.
Israel receives about 40 percent of its gas consumption from Egypt, though the deal is deeply unpopular there, with ex-president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies accused of underpricing the gas and profiting corruptly from sales. The pipeline through the volatile Sinai has been attacked five times this year, cutting supplies and forcing Israel to raise electricity prices by almost 10 percent in August to cover the increased costs of burning oil.