By Steven Scheer
JERUSALEM, April 25 Australia's Woodside Petroleum said it remained committed to buying a key stake in a large Israeli natural gas field no matter how much of the output it will be allowed to export.
Woodside, Australia's biggest oil and gas firm, in December agreed to buy 30 percent of the Leviathan prospect for $1.25 billion.
Finalising the deal has been on hold due to a general election in Israel in January and the subsequent setting up of a new government.
"We are committed to making the investment in Israel in full and operate in Israel's natural gas market and the Leviathan well," Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman told Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom during a meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday, according to a statement from Shalom's office.
The Leviathan gas field is located 130 km (80 miles) off the Mediterranean port of Haifa and has estimated gas reserves of 18 trillion cubic feet (520 billion cubic metres), which is equivalent to almost a year's worth of European gas demand and enough to cover Israel's gas needs for generations.
Leviathan, the world's largest offshore natural gas find in a decade, is expected to begin production in 2016 and is mostly slated for export - via a liquefied natural gas facility - since the Tamar field which started output last month can meet Israel's gas needs for decades.
A government panel last August recommended that Israel set aside 450 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas, enough to satisfy its own needs for 25 years, and allow 500 bcm to be exported, though the recommendations have yet to be formally approved.
However, there have been calls by policymakers to decrease the amount allotted for exports.
"In any case, there won't be zero gas exports," Shalom said. "We will do everything to attract foreign companies to operate and invest in Israel and make new discoveries."
Shalom said there is a need to find the right balance between preserving natural resources for future generations and attracting foreign firms to invest in Israel.
"I will try to convince my fellow ministers to act upon this path," he added.
Coleman urged Shalom to quickly confirm the committee's conclusions and implement them, saying that exports was the main way to lower natural gas costs. Shalom said the issue of natural gas exports would be decided at a cabinet meeting next month.
Under the deal with Woodside, Noble Energy, which will remain the upstream operator, will sell 9.66 percent of its 39.66 percent share in Leviathan.
Delek Drilling and Avner Oil Exploration will each give up 7.67 percent of their 22.67 percent stakes. Ratio will sell 5 percent of its 15 percent stake.