Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau yesterday accepted the Tzemach committee's final report on natural gas policy, endorsing its key findings. He explained that allowing the gas exploration companies to export will also motivate them to undertake the heavy investment of developing the undersea gas fields, which were found in the Mediterranean seabed.

Critics of the putative policy argue that Israel needs to keep its gas findings for itself, rather than allow exports as the Tzemach Committee recomends.

Details of the panel's proposals have already been leaked. The main point is to allow energy companies to export 53% of the s gas reserves, about 500 billion cubic meters. The ceiling would be subject to various limitations and approvals.

The 53% figure is based on estimates that energy companies will ultimately uncover some 950 billion cubic meters of gas, a figure that has been subject to some dispute.

The rest of the gas, some 450 billion cubic meters, would be used domestically, the committee proposed. It said the amount it wants to allocate to Israeli users equals the economy's estimated needs over the next 25 years for electricity generation, powering industrial plants and transportation.

Some industry observers say Israel could increase its consumption of gas by substituting it for imported petroleum and developing new energy-based industries, but the Tzemach panel rejected these ideas. Shaul Tzemach, the panel's chairman as well as director-general of the Energy and Water Resources Ministry, also rejected those claims. "Whoever wants to develop a petrochemicals plant, can," Tzemach said, citing an example of an energy-intensive industry that could benefit from plentiful gas. "There is the raw material to do it. Some have been saying that this is a matter of energy security, but energy security is not safeguarding gas in order to make fertilizer," he said.

Right now, Israeli gas reserves are estimated at 800 billion cubic meters, but geologists say that with much of it, principally in the Tamar and Leviathan fields, their estimates are subject to varying levels of certainty. Israel has reserves that could end up being less than estimated even as it commits itself to large-scale exports.

Tzemach defended the estimates by saying his panel used conventional ways of assessing gas reserves. Under the committee's proposals, operators of different sized fields would have different export ceilings. The biggest, with reserves of 200 billion cubic meters, would be limited to exports of no more than 50%, while fields of 100 to 200 billion cubic meters could export 60%, and small fields between 75% and 100%.