Israel's Gas Party Ends Before It Began

Prices for natural gas have crashed, which is a much bigger problem for the Eastern Mediterranean than the coronavirus

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Tuesday, July 9, 2019 file photo, a Turkish Navy warship patrols near Turkey's drilling ship ' Fatih ' that is making its way towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. Turkish officials say the drillships Fatih and Yavuz will drill for gas, which has prompted protests from Cyprus.
Turkish Navy warship patrols near Turkey's drilling ship Fatih as it sails towards the Eastern Mediterranean near CyprusCredit: Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Less than 18 months ago, it looked like the Eastern Mediterranean was on its way to becoming the natural gas equivalent of the Persian Gulf oil empire. Alright, that’s an exaggeration, but there was every sign that many of the region’s countries, including Israel, were ready to cooperate in turning the region into a global energy hub.

Egypt had begun production at its giant Zohr field and Israel’s somewhat smaller Leviathan was gearing up to begin pumping, too. Exploration was underway in Cypriot waters, and plans were afoot to ship Israeli and Cypriot gas to Egypt for re-export to Europe. There were even serious efforts underway to build a pipeline from Egypt to Europe.

In a rare case of the region putting aside their political disagreements, six countries – Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – formed an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to organize the emerging hub. Turkey refused to join the party, making ridiculously outsized claims about its exploration rights and harassing Cyprus’ drilling efforts.

Eighteen months later about the only thing that hasn’t changed is Turkey’s bloody-mindedness: Against all economic logic, it’s continuing to drill in waters claimed by Cyprus. But virtually everywhere else in the Eastern Mediterranean the gas business has ground to a halt because global gas prices have collapsed in tandem with the more infamous drop in oil prices.

On the Dutch TTF hub, a European benchmark, natural gas for June delivery last week traded at 3.50 euros per megawatt hour, its lowest since 2005. Many in the industry fret that European gas could soon be selling for less than zero, just as oil did in the United States last month.

The coronavirus is only part of the problem. Months before it began to wreak havoc across the world’s economies and slash energy demand, prices had been falling sharply because of the simple reason that a gas glut has been created.

The Eastern Mediterranean isn’t the only place where newly found reserves have been exploited. New gas was being produced everywhere, most notably in the United States – a side effect of the U.S. shale oil boom. There was too much gas on the supply side and then the coronavirus came and killed the demand side.

In Europe, tankers carrying liquefied natural gas are lying idle off the coast of Europe. Storage tanks are close to capacity but big producers, like Qatar, are still pumping the stuff because it’s not so easy to shut down production. By July, there may be no room left to store all the excess gas.

The target market vaporizes

This is a serious problem for the Eastern Mediterranean. Even the region’s biggest local markets – Egypt and Israel – can’t absorb all the gas that’s being produced or slated for production. Europe is supposed to be the big market for Eastern Mediterranean gas

Egypt has ceased exporting LNG since March and has idled its single plant. In Cyprus, ExxonMobil and a partnership between ENI and Total have put off conducting any more exploratory drilling. Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group, the partners in Cyprus’ Aphrodite field, may have to delay plans to build a pipeline to Egypt, whence the gas was supposed to be sent on to Europe as LNG.

So far, Israel has been spared the impact of the glut because most of its gas is sold at home and the domestic market is delinked from global market trends by contracts set at high prices. (The problems at Delek Group, one of the two main partners in the Tamar and Leviathan fields, are due to its foreign oil assets, not its local gas ones.) But the Israeli gas market is saturated. Its future lies in exports, and the future looks bleak.

Israel’s big export success to date is the deal signed last year to sell gas to Egypt’s Dolphinus. Egypt has plenty of its own gas, so the Israeli gas is supposed to be re-exported to Europe as LNG processed at Egyptian plants. But prices are now too low to justify doing that and, in any case, no one in Europe wants it. Dolphinus is supposed to take even more Israeli gas starting in July, but it’s hard to imagine why it would want to.

Jordan, a much smaller Israeli export customer, may also decide that Israeli gas is too expensive (and with annexation carries too big a political price) and opt for cheaper LNG from Qatar.

The fact that the European market is all but dead for now is a comparatively little problem for Israel. The big problem is that it may never come back to life. Prices may recover, but the halt in Eastern Mediterranean development means there won’t be much gas to sell Europe for years to come.

In the longer run, Europe and the rest of the world seem destined to move on to alternative energy in place of fossil fuels. Coal is already on the way out and the oil outlook is dim. Gas may hold out a little longer because it is cleaner than the other two, but that’s not the kind of future to inspire energy companies to spend billions on exploration and development. The Eastern Mediterranean gas party may have ended before it began.

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