* Karish field could hold 2 tcf of natural gas
* Argument over gas export rages in Israel
By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM, May 16 A U.S.-Israeli group drilling
in the eastern Mediterranean has discovered positive signs of
another natural gas field off Israel's coast, potentially
boosting the country's reserves as it drafts its export policy.
Texas-based Noble Energy and its Israeli partners,
Avner Oil Exploration and Delek Drilling,
said on Thursday they found "significant signs" of gas at an
exploratory well at the Karish prospect, about 75 km (46 miles)
from the coastal port of Haifa.
Karish could hold 2 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, Delek
Drilling said, citing a preliminary estimate, making it much
smaller than the two massive Tamar and Leviathan fields recently
discovered in Israeli waters.
But it is still a commercial quantity and, if proven,
strengthens the case for energy companies who are lobbying the
government to allow large levels of exports.
The Karish partners will publish a more detailed analysis of
the data in about two months, Delek Drilling said.
Tamar, which came online in March with an estimated 10 tcf,
can meet Israel's needs for decades. Leviathan, expected to
begin production in 2016, is estimated to hold 19 tcf.
Israel, long reliant on energy imports, is struggling to
find the balance of how much gas to keep and how much to export.
Exploration companies argue that because Israel is such a
small market, further investment in the area could only be
justified if there is a substantial export quota. But if too
much is sold abroad, the country may lose out on long-term
Noble, which is also leading the Leviathan project, has said
it cannot commit to further development until the government
decides on its policy. That includes finalising a deal to bring
Australia's Woodside Petroleum in on Leviathan to help
with liquefied natural gas exports.
Energy Minister Silvan Shalom has said a decision will be
made in the coming weeks.
The verdict will likely be based on recommendations made by
a government committee last year. The panel called on Israel to
keep enough gas to satisfy its own needs for 25 years, which
comes out to a bit less than half of Israel's total reserves,
currently estimated at 33.5 tcf.
In the meantime, a number of lawmakers and environmental
groups have called to lower the recommended export cap, or even
to put off making any final judgement for years.
The gas windfall will give a bump to Israel's economy, which
is expected to grow 2.8 percent in 2013 excluding gas
production, down from 3.2 percent in 2012. With gas, the 2013
forecast jumps to 3.8 percent.
"The natural gas industry is a key economic growth engine,"
said Delek Drilling CEO Yossi Abu following the Karish
announcement. "Exports in significant quantities will encourage
additional players from Israel and the world to invest vast sums
of money in further exploration."