(Adds Egypt oil ministry source)
By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM, March 18 (Reuters) - A group of private customers in Egypt has agreed to buy at least $1.2 billion of natural gas from Israel’s offshore Tamar field via an old pipeline built to send gas to Israel.
The Tamar partners said on Wednesday they signed a seven-year deal with Dolphinus Holdings, a firm that represents non-governmental, industrial and commercial consumers in Egypt, that calls for a minimum 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to be sold in the first three years.
An energy source in Israel, however, said the total export amount in the deal could be more than three times higher, depending on demand in Egypt, which is facing one of its worst energy crunches in years.
The supplies will pass through an underwater pipeline constructed nearly a decade ago by East Mediterranean Gas (EMG), the company that oversaw a now-defunct Egyptian-Israeli natural gas deal.
Egypt had been selling gas to Israel in a 20-year agreement, but the deal collapsed in 2012 after months of attacks on the pipeline by militants in Egypt’s remote Sinai peninsula. It has since been out of commission and EMG is suing the Egyptian government for damages.
An oil ministry source in Egypt told Reuters the ministry had not received any requests from private-sector firms to import gas.
“The ministry is ready to agree to gas imports from abroad if the imports achieve the three conditions of adding value to the domestic market, solving international arbitration disputes, and providing gas to the market,” the source said.
Recent offshore discoveries such as Tamar, with an estimated 280 bcm of gas, and Leviathan, which is more than twice as big, have turned previously import-dependent Israel into a potential energy exporter. Egypt has been slow in developing its own sizable gas resources and is seeking numerous import options.
Tamar’s shareholders that are traded in Tel Aviv -- Delek Drilling, Avner Oil and Isramco Negev -- were up 4-5 percent, outpacing modest gains in the broader market.
Texas-based Noble Energy is the field’s operator.
The chairman of Delek Drilling, Yossi Abu, said the deal shows that Israel can be “an energy anchor for countries in the region” and that, along with a pipeline of export agreements under negotiation, it will “radically change Israel’s geopolitical status.”
The Dolphinus deal is linked to the price of Brent and is subject to various approvals in Israel, Egypt and from EMG.
Noble and Delek, who are also developing Leviathan, have been negotiating two larger export deals with foreign operators of liquefied natural gas plants in Egypt, but those deals have been on hold since Israel’s competition regulator said it might declare the developers a monopoly. (Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Shadi Bushra in Cairo; Editing by Tova Cohen, Louise Heavens and David Evans)