Three miles under the waves, it’s impossible to hear the bloated claims, the quibbling politicians and the turgid punditry surrounding Israel’s plan to pull so much natural gas out of the ground that the country literally won’t know what to do with it.
Life as a million-year-old dead fish might not be so bad after all.
To find Israel’s massive off-shore natural gas fields, you’ll have to start at the Haifa Port and travel 90 kilometers (50 miles) due west as the crow flies. Then dive 1.6 kilometers (one mile) down to the bottom of the sea floor, and drill for another three kilometers (1.8 miles) straight down. There, with fresh air almost five kilometers (three miles) above your head, you’ll find a 200-meter wide pocket of natural gas trapped within spaces of the sandstone rock bed or layers of sand.
Millions of years ago, organic material like plants and fish died and sank to the bottom of the sea, where they were covered by layers of sand. Over the course of time, under sand that became rock, this matter decomposed anaerobically, meaning it decomposed without oxygen. Fast forward to today, when those bits of dead fish have been transformed into a vast network of deep water natural gas fields worth billions of dollars. If you’re in Israel, yesterday’s dead fish are powering 60 percent of the electricity you’re using to read this article.
For the past month, these bits of dead fish and seaweed have been subjected to the national spotlight, following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s public failure to push the gas deal through Knesset without revealing its contents to the public.
But what’s really out there, hundreds of kilometers from shore? Times of Israel takes a deeper look at how Israel’s massive offshore natural gas fields will be harvested to eventually power factories, bakeries, schools, and malls.
I’d like to be under the sea
The Tethys Sea Partnership first discovered natural gas off Israel’s coast in 1999 and early 2000, in two fields called “Noa” and “MaryB” near the coastal city of Ashkelon. Production began at the MaryB site in 2004, with the majority of the natural gas going to the Israel Electric Corporation’s power plants. These two offshore fields have about 45 billion square meters of natural gas.
In January 2009, a conglomerate of drilling companies led by Noble Energy found a larger reservoir of natural gas at the Tamar drill site, about 90 kilometers west of Haifa. The Tamar site has an estimated 240 billion square meters of natural gas. In 2010, another partnership led by Delek Drilling announced that the Leviathan site had reserves of approximately 450 billion square meters.
Production began at the Tamar site in March 2013. The Leviathan site production rights, however, are still under negotiation, which is the political fracas happening this year.
The Tamar site, which is 90 kilometers west of Haifa, has five wells producing gas. The gas collected from these five wells is brought, untreated, through two parallel pipelines about 150 kilometers south to a treatment platform facility called the Tamar Platform. The Tamar Platform is located about 20 km from the coast of Ashkelon. These pipelines are laid on the bottom of the sea and covered with sand.
On the platform, the gas is treated,and impurities such as trace amounts of oil or other gases are removed. The treated gas is then shipped via pipeline to Ashdod, explained Amit Mor, the CEO of Eco Energy. Eco Energy is an independent consulting company which advises governments and international organizations like the World Bank about energy, environment, and infrastructure. Mor advised the Sheshinski Commission, a committee led by Professor Eytan Sheshinski that examined natural gas and petroleum policies.
“[Tamar] is a large field that can supply much of the needs of Israel for the next 15 years,” Mor told the Times of Israel.
There are also two smaller fields called Tanin and Karish, about 120 kilometers off the coast of Haifa, which have about 80 billion cubic meters combined, and are still under negotiation.
Drill, baby, drill
The problem with deep sea drilling is that it’s impossible to know whether there is oil or gas deep in the rock section until after you drill. Geologists and geophysicists use various mapping and tomography techniques, such as penetrating waves (like ultrasound), to create a visualization of the rock bed structure in the subsurface beneath the sea floor.
“We use everything we understand about the area’s geology, and we use different geophysical methods,” explained Professor Shimon Feinstein, a professor of geology at Ben Gurion University. “But this is like an X-ray or ultrasound in medicine: we’re trying to figure out what is inside the body without opening it.”
The only way to know whether or not there is oil or natural gas in the geological section below the sea floor, or how much is trapped there, is to drill and check.
“It’s not like drilling a nail into drywall,” said Feinstein. “It’s very expensive. It’s very deep, and the stones are very hard.”
The exploration process has already been completed for the Leviathan field, which thus far is Israel’s largest field.
Leviathan’s size astounded the companies involved, the government, and the public. The difficulty in predicting how much gas was in the field is part of the reason that Israel is in this political quagmire over profits and drilling rights with the gas companies.
“When the companies started the [exploration] drilling, there was no competition on buying exploration rights,” explained Feinstein. “Israel had to work hard to convince the companies to come.”
But the size of the discoveries, first in Tamar and then Leviathan, was beyond anything the government expected.
“We definitely didn’t have a set of regulations that were suitable for the level of discovery,” said Feinstein. “We’re caught in this very embarrassing situation where we sold a lease for exploration with certain conditions, and due to the huge discovery which were beyond our imagination, we decided ‘Oh, we made a mistake,’ and we are changing the rules of the game after the game was over.”
The companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the exploration process. The drilling is the most expensive part, and it’s also the riskiest part.
Each individual drill costs $150 million just for the drill itself, explained Mor, of Eco Energy. “This is very expensive gas to produce compared to onshore gas. For example, shale gas [gas trapped within sedimentary rock on land] is much cheaper.”
The two major companies exploring Tamar and Leviathan are the US-based Noble Energy and Israel-based Delek Drilling. Other companies are also involved in the exploration and production, but to a much smaller extent. The other companies include Avner, Israemco, Dor, and Ratio.The political concern is the possibility that Noble and Delek will have a monopoly over the gas market, since they own such large shares.
Once the companies choose a spot for drilling, they perforate the sea floor. The drill bit also injects a special mud as it drills downward. This “drilling mud” is made from a clay-based substance calibrated to the specific conditions of the well. It is injected during the drilling process in order to cool the bit as well as maintain the integrity of the well by not allowing liquids or gas to flow upwards while the drilling is in progress.
The drill must operate under enormous pressure. Due to the depth of the fields, the gas is trapped under pressure that can be 400-500 times the pressure at sea level. This pressure causes the gas to flow into the well and upwards.
Until the controversial on-shore drilling process called fracking — in which a well is drilled and then liquids are forced into it to break the rock and allow the gas or oil to escape — in deep sea drilling, the pressure vacuum naturally encourages the gas to enter the well.
In the Tamar field, the gas is also transported through pipes to the treatment platform at high pressure of about 90 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. The natural gas has some impurities in it, including trace amounts of oil.
Power to the people
After being treated, the offshore natural gas from the Tamar field is piped 20 kilometers along the sea bed and meets Israel at a receiving plant in Ashdod. Once it arrives on the mainland, a government-owned corporation called Israel Natural Gas Lines (“Natgaz” is its Hebrew acronym) has a network of 430 kilometers of natural gas pipes that snake around the country. This distribution network brings the natural gas to eight power plants and major energy consumers, like industrial zones in Haifa Bay, Dead Sea Works, Ramat Hovav and Mishor Rotem, among others.
Currently, only major consumers are directly connected to natural gas. There are five smaller regional gas companies who are building infrastructure to bring gas to medium-level consumers, like hospitals, office buildings, malls, and smaller factories. But the process of laying gas lines is difficult given the cost and the bureaucratic hurdles of construction in Israel.
Israel now gets approximately 60 percent of its electricity from natural gas. Environmental activists encourage the use of natural gas, especially in power plants, because natural gas pollutes much less than oil or coal.
The Ministry of Natural Infrastructures, Water, and Energy found that in addition to reducing pollution and greenhouse gases, natural gas is much more efficient and can produce almost 20 percent more electricity than coal or oil.
“We are in favor of extracting and using natural gas, as it is a much cleaner fuel,” explained Green Course activist Ely Abramovitch. “It’s a transitional gas, it’s what we need to use until we can depend on renewable energies.”
Environmental group Green Course is one of the leaders of the umbrella group of environmental organizations who hold weekly protests on Saturday nights to protest the gas deal. What they’re protesting, Abramovitch explains, is the lack of transparency in the negotiations between the government and the gas companies, not the actual extraction and production of the gas itself.
“We do support the use of natural gas, we would like to make sure all of the power plants in Israel will transition to natural gas, because there are still power plants that use the old fuels,” he said. “One of the things to do with [the profits] from natural gas would be to develop cleaner energy.”
Dangers in the Deep
Any kind of off-shore drilling immediately brings to mind the fiery explosion of the Deepwater Horizons oil spill of 2010, the largest oil spill in history. In that 2010 disaster, a surge of natural gas burst through the concrete core of the well, causing a massive explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 people and injuring 17. Two days later, the rig capsized and sank, which ruptured the riser, the part of the rig that injects the drilling mud into the well. With no opposing pressure, oil began spurting into the Gulf of Mexico. US government officials estimated at the peak, the leak was spewing 60,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf.
But experts familiar with the Israeli project said Israel will not face the possibility of a leak like Deepwater because the companies are drilling for natural gas rather than oil.
“Natural gas has much less risk,” said Feinstein. “An explosion could result in environmental damage, but not as bad as oil, because from the chemical point of view the gas has a much simpler composition. It’s the smallest molecule in the whole petroleum system with one carbon and four hydrogens.” This means natural gas dissolves more easily than oil, which has a more complex chemical composition.
Mor explained that one lesson taken from the Deepwater explosion is to have multiple valves that can shut the flow of gas in various locations along the pipeline in case of an explosion.
Environmentally, there are also disturbances at the drilling site or when laying the pipes, both on land or on the sea bed. Feinstein said that the companies must use extreme caution to ensure that they are not allowing chemicals used in the drilling process to drip into the water. But environmental activists generally agree that the benefit of using natural gas over coal outweighs the local disturbances, explained Abramovitch. Still, they want to ensure that the companies will take responsibility in the event of a problem.
“Right now, the agreements don’t provide any protection if there’s an ecological disaster,” he said. “Or, what’s more likely in Israel, in the time of war the gas lines and gas drills might be a target for a terrorist organization. We need to make sure that these gas products do not spill into the ocean, and make sure the cleaning operation is financed by the company.”
Developments regarding the gas regulations have dominated the news for the past month, especially after Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz announced late on Monday night that they were postponing the vote from Wednesday’s Knesset meeting as planned before the summer recess.
During Netanyahu’s visit to Cyprus on Tuesday, he discussed possible cooperation with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades regarding the Aphrodite gas field, which borders Leviathan but is in Cypriot waters.
Steinitz is meeting with company representatives over the next few days in order to try to reach a compromise on some of the biggest issues. He told Globes that he plans to bring the gas roadmap to a vote before the cabinet in the next two weeks. The Knesset starts their summer recess on Thursday and reconvenes in October, so any vote on the gas bill would require a special session.
If there is no special session scheduled to discuss the gas issue, the cabinet will discuss the gas bill on September 2, when a special session on the state budget is already scheduled.
The gas roadmap does not legally require approval from the Knesset, but the loud public outcry that forced Netanyahu to finally reveal the details of the contracts will also force politicians to put the deal to a vote.
But Feinstein and Mor warned that the public also needs to look at the larger picture.
“The public is more disturbed these days with the regulations and the policies. They’re not concerned so much with the technical issues,” explained Mor.
“The major issue that people should be aware is the issue of national security,” Mor added. “The fact that these days, 60 percent of our electricity is dependent on gas which comes from one field, the Tamar field. Technical problems, or the threat of missiles and so forth, can cause major holes in the supply of gas. This is for both Israelis and Palestinians alike, who will sit in the dark because they’re totally dependent on one producing field.”
Mor noted that it will be at least five years before Karish and Tanin can start producing.
“We need three independent pipelines because Israel is at a very high risk for national security,” he said.