TEL AVIV (JTA) – More than a year after a massive natural gas find in the Mediterranean Sea off the Israeli coast sparked hopes in Israel of a new era of energy independence, the project is running into concerns about how the gas can be delivered safely.
The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has raised concerns in Israel about processing the gas and its delivery within the country.
"You don't just open the valve and everyone's happy," said Zeev Aizenshtat, a fossil fuels expert who works as a chemistry professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. "In a country that has security problems, especially with the imminent threat of missiles coming in, you need to makes sure the pipes are well protected.”
The question is how to bring the gas, which was discovered in February 2009 one mile below the sea floor approximately 50 miles off the Haifa coast, to Israel, and then how to distribute it throughout the country. Natural gas is highly flammable, and Israel also lacks the infrastructure of piping needed to distribute the gas nationwide.
If Israel finds a way to deliver it safely and efficiently, the treasure trove of some 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be Israel's ticket to energy independence, providing the country with some 70 percent of its energy needs for the next 20 years, according to experts.
The trove is a combination of two major gas fields -- called Leviathan and Tamar, named for the granddaughter of Israeli energy mogul Yitzhak Tshuva. It was Tshuva’s Delek Group and a U.S. partner that were responsible for the drilling that led to the finds.
Israel’s energy needs are now provided mostly by coal. Israel imports natural gas from Egypt via a pipeline, and it imports coal and oil from countries around the globe, including Russia, Mexico and Norway.
"This discovery is nothing short of a geopolitical game changer," Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based NGO that deals with energy and security issues, wrote earlier this month in the Haaretz newspaper.
But several challenges come first. Lebanon claims it has rights to the Leviathan find because they say the northern part of the find is in Lebanese territorial waters. Israel dismisses the claim, saying it is firmly within its own maritime boundaries.
“We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law,” Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau told the Bloomberg news agency last week, responding to the Lebanese claims.
Then there is the question of how to deliver the gas and avoid accidents like the BP spill especially if, as is now being considered, Israel builds a natural gas processing plant in the sea rather than on land.
The underwater plant has two potential benefits. It could offer the processing plant additional protection from attack by terrorists or enemy aircraft, and it could circumvent the not-in-my-backyard syndrome that stands as an obstacle to the construction of a processing plant near Israeli population centers along the coast. Local opponents already have emerged against each of six potential sites for the plant on land.
Israelis are concerned that the gas power plants could become military targets or turn into fireballs, said Amit Bracha, executive director of the advocacy group Adam Teva V'Din, The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense.
"The not-in-my-backyard syndrome takes on new meaning in Israel, which is so small," Bracha said.
Adam Teva V'Din supports the alternative option of establishing the plant underwater.
"No one can bomb it," Bracha said, "and it's safer because it's not near any neighborhoods."
But safety concerns attend to that option, too.
A spill in the water would cause serious environmental damage, albeit less than a toxic oil spill. Even on land, Israel would have to build a network of pipes that would be secure and able to shut down automatically if there is a leak.
The government is conducting a survey to determine the best option for constructing the natural has processing plant. In any case, the gas itself won't be tapped until 2012 because it takes time to set up a distribution infrastructure.
In a statement to JTA, the National Infrastructure Ministry wrote that even if a decision is made to build an underwater plant, it does not preclude the possibility that one might also be built on land.
Aizenshtat said the natural gas find could help Israel achieve newfound independence.
"We were promised a land of milk and honey by God, but nothing was ever said about petroleum," he said. "But the moment you do have it, people start looking at you differently.
"Energy today is a commodity that countries live and die by," he said. "Whoever has control of the faucet can have a strong influence on the world. Politically this find is very important."
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