Natural gas from the offshore Tamar field was pumped to Israeli shores for the first time Saturday, four years after its discovery, in preparation for its first use in the Israeli energy market — a move that could transform the Israeli economy.

The Tamar deposit, discovered in 2009 some 90 kilometers west of Haifa, holds an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

On Saturday, hailed an “important day for the Israeli economy” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, natural gas from the field was being pumped to a newly erected facility on the coast of Ashdod, connected to the gas field via pipelines laid out on the ocean floor, 150 kilometers long and 16 inches wide.

Commenting on the historic development, Netanyahu drew a link between the event and the holiday of Passover.

“On the festival of freedom, we are taking an important step toward energy independence. We have advanced the natural gas sector in Israel over the last decade, which will be good for the Israeli economy and for all Israelis,” Netanyahu said.

The gas is to be transferred Sunday from the facility to a processing plant in Ashdod. From there, it will flow into the Israeli market. These newly harnessed resources promise to be a major boon to both the country’s public and private energy needs.

The controlling Tamar shareholder, Yitzhak Tshuva, said Saturday’s start of pumping came “months ahead of schedule.” He said the gas flow “will make Israel energy independent.”

The gas from Tamar is expected to help meet Israel’s energy needs for the next 20 years, Channel 2 said, and will save the economy some NIS 13 billion (some $3.5 billion) per year. Its ahead-of-schedule use will also save Israeli citizens some cash — lowering a planned rise in electricity costs to 6 percent, less than originally planned.

“This is an ‘energy independence day’ for Israel,” said Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom. “This breakthrough is the harbinger of the foray of additional private companies” into the Israeli energy market, he added.

Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom visits a special processing plant off the coast of Ashdod, set to receive gas from the Tamar deposit for the first time in four years. (photo credit: Moshe Binyamin/Energy and Water Ministry)

Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom visits a special processing plant off the coast of Ashdod, set to receive gas from the Tamar deposit for the first time in four years. (photo credit: Moshe Binyamin/Energy and Water Ministry)

The Tamar deposit, and especially the heftier Leviathan, which was discovered in 2010, are expected to provide Israel with enough natural gas for decades and transform the country, famously empty of natural resources, into an energy exporter.

Leviathan, which boasts an estimated 16 to 18 trillion cubic feet of gas, is expected to go online in 2016, the approximate time when exports are expected to begin.

Selling this gas overseas will require Israel to navigate a geopolitical quagmire that risks angering allies and enemies alike, however. Amid this uncertainty, Israel still has not formulated an export policy.

“Instead of being an ingredient which serves to calm the tensions of the eastern Mediterranean, (the discoveries) provide instead another impetus for rivalry,” said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is a reason this is often called diplomatically trapped gas.”

The discoveries are just a portion of the huge reserves in the Levant Basin, which the United States Geological Survey estimated in 2010 holds some 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

While Israel’s finds are minimal compared to gas giants Russia, Iran or Qatar, they are more than enough for the country’s domestic needs and would enable the country to reduce its reliance on costlier and dirtier oil and coal. Nearby Cyprus has also become newly resource-rich, and Israel’s other neighbors, including enemies, may discover their own deposits.

In all, Israel has just the world’s 46th largest supply of proven natural gas reserves, according to the CIA Factbook. But the country’s proximity to Middle Eastern and European markets could make it an important regional player. For oil companies hoping to profit from the new wealth, the biggest hurdle remains the lack of an export policy.