REUTERS - New regulation of Israel's natural gas and mining industries aimed at increasing competition to bring down prices is scaring off investors, putting billions of dollars at risk.
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The rules, introduced over five years for many sectors but hitting natural resource companies particularly hard, allow the break up powerful conglomerates that dominate Israel's economy, with the goal of reducing high living costs, a major voter complaint ahead of the March 17 national election.
But investor concern intensified in late December when the antitrust authority declared that stakeholders in two large natural gas fields - Israel's Delek Group and Texas-based Noble Energy - might be running a monopoly under the new rules and could be forced to sell assets.
"As long as there is no certainty regarding the regulatory environment it will be almost mission impossible for international quality investors to invest here because so many parameters can change," said Edouard Cukierman, chairman of Cukierman Investment House, who has raised $5 billion in investments in Israeli companies.
Noble and Delek are the largest stakeholders in Israel's two main gas fields - Tamar, which began production in 2013, and Leviathan, the world's largest offshore gas discovery of the past decade, which they hoped to bring online in 2018.
Together the companies say they have invested about $6 billion in Israel and they had planned to spend another $6.5 billion to develop Leviathan.
"Final resolution of this item, as well as a number of other regulatory matters, is required before we proceed with additional exploration or development investments in our Israel business," David Stover, Noble chief executive said on Dec. 23.
The Leviathan partners are also in advanced talks with Britain's BG Group about purchasing gas for a liquefied natural gas export plant in Egypt, and with Jordan's national electricity company.
Any delay in developing the field could jeopardize those deals and also threatens a major domestic source of fuel, potentially sending prices higher.
Other companies have also been put off by the new approach.
Israel Chemicals which has a monopoly on Dead Sea mining said it would cancel investments after a Finance Ministry panel in October proposed reversing a previous understanding and increasing taxes on minerals.
The canceled investments are worth 2.5 billion shekels ($630 million) and the company said it would reevaluate another 3.5 billion shekels, divert investment to other parts of the world, close its magnesium plant and accelerate efficiency plans at plants in Israel.
Australia's Woodside Petroleum in March backed out at the last minute of a $2 billion deal to buy into the Leviathan field over a disagreement with Israel's tax authority.
The wave of regulatory changes began in 2010, shortly after Tamar and Leviathan were discovered, and has been extended into mined resources. Other sectors, such as telecoms and food production, have also been affected.
Israeli authorities estimate 10 large groups control 40 percent of the market value of all listed companies and want to introduce more competition to bring down the cost of goods.
"It was the main campaign banner in the 2012 general election. Regulators and politicians on all sides have jumped on the bandwagon," said Citi analyst Michael Klahr.
The eastern Mediterranean natural gas discoveries caught Israel by surprise in 2009 and 2010. To ensure the public got a share of the windfall, it changed its tax and royalty policy, raising it to a level similar to one in developed countries.
It plans to raise taxes for mining as well.
The government then capped how much gas could be sold abroad, further upsetting exploration companies who argue that exports are needed to justify big investments since Israel is such a small market.
"It kills any desire to come here," Yaniv Pagot, chief strategist at the Ayalon insurance and investment group, said of the changes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed his top economic adviser to look into the natural gas dispute. The antitrust commissioner, however, has final say on whether the group is a monopoly and summoned the companies for hearings on Jan. 28 and 29, after which a decision will be made.
Should the group be forced to sell its stake in either the Tamar or Leviathan fields, finding a buyer might be difficult given the current environment of uncertainty, said one senior energy executive in Israel.
A compromise might enable the companies to hold on to those fields but sell two smaller fields under their ownership, the executive said. The companies could then sell gas separately, adding an element of competition, or a government company could be formed to buy domestic gas, keeping costs down.