The New Mediterranean Oil and Gas Bonanza

In 1970s after the Arabs’ use of the oil weapon with their coffers brimming with petrodollars, Israel’s formidable Prime Minister Golda Meir famously quipped that Prophet Moses had led the Jews to the one place in the Middle East where there was no oil. 

But her statement has now been turned on its head. Israel sits on the second largest recorded shale oil deposit in the world. Last month Israel Energy Initiatives’ office, located ironically at 1 Golda Meir Boulevard in Jerusalem, extracted oil from shale by heating the shale underground until it became  liquid. It turned out to be of very fine quality oil. The company hopes to produce 50,000 barrels a day by 2020.

But more sensational energy discoveries have been within Israel’s coastal waters in eastern Mediterranean; two natural gas fields. One could supply Israel’s domestic market for decades. The other, a “supergiant”, could be used purely for export. Who knows Israel could become one of the world’s leading energy exporters? 

The Levant Basin, encompassing approximately 32,000 square miles, covers onshore and offshore territory including the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that the area holds a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable gas. 

The economically fast growing energy short China, has already made a bee line and a deal for transporting liquid gas home via a pipeline from Israel's Mediterranean coast to port Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba exiting into the Red Sea. The proposed rail-cum-road links would facilitate transfer of liquefied natural gas via the Indian Ocean to China. This communication link would also enhance China's exports to central and southern Europe and the Balkans, bypassing Egypt's congested Suez Canal.

The author when posted at Amman (1989-92) drove along the desert road south of the Dead Sea to the Jordan port of Aqaba, from where one could see Eilat with its glittering lights and resorts. He never imagined such a commercial rail track or pipe line in the region. Jordan too has ample shale oil rock deposits but as yet no oil or gas reserves. Before the 2003 US led illegal invasion of Iraq, Jordan relied on concessional oil supplies from Iraq, which used an excellent highway from Baghdad to Aqaba via Jordan for Iraq’s imports and exports bypassing the Gulf.

As can be seen, the gas fields in Eastern Mediterranean fall in an area where neighboring countries have simmering tensions and have already staked their claims on the discovered energy bonanza. It could mimic the disputes and tensions over energy rich South China Sea islands.

Under Washington’s influence, with US pensioners in key positions, India has yet to secure its energy security. Indian efforts have been stymied by Washington, which is now pressurizing Delhi to reduce oil imports from Iran. Like other public resources, minerals, gas and oil, wireless spectrum have been parceled to rich fat cats and robber barons in India. 

Energy is a vital strategic factor in a nation’s economic and strategic security with ramifications all over the world.

Below is an excellent article in two parts by William F. Engdahl [author of A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics], a renowned thinker and analyst on international problems, specially relating to economics and energy. The article was originally published February 13, 2012 and is being carried here with the author's consent and permission.

The New Mediterranean Oil and Gas Bonanza

Part I:
Israel’s Levant Basin—a new geopolitical curse?

Recent discoveries of not just significant, but huge oil and gas reserves in the little-explored Mediterranean Sea between Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Syria and Lebanon suggest that the region could become literally a “new Persian Gulf” in terms of oil and gas riches. As with the Old Persian Gulf, discovery of hydrocarbon riches could as well spell a geopolitical curse of staggering dimension. 

Long-standing Middle East conflicts could soon be paled by new battles over rights to oil and gas resources beneath the eastern Mediterranean in the Levant Basin and Aegean Sea. Here we explore the implications of a gigantic discovery of gas and oil in offshore Israel. In a second article we will explore the implications of gas and oil discoveries in the Aegean between Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. 

An Israeli Leviathan

The game-changer was a dramatic discovery in late 2010 of an enormous natural gas field offshore of Israel in what geologists call the Levant or Levantine Basin. In October 2010Israel discovered a massive “super-giant” gas field offshore in what it declares is its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The find is some 84 miles west of the Haifa port and three miles deep. They named it Leviathan after the Biblical sea monster. Three Israeli energy companies in cooperation with the Houston Texas Noble Energy announced initial estimates that the field contained16 trillion cubic feet of gas—making it the world's biggest deep-water gas finding a decade, adding more discredit to “peak oil” theories that the planet is about to see dramatic and permanent shortages of oil, gas and coal. To put the number in perspective, that one gas field, Leviathan, would hold enough reserves to supply Israel's gas needs for 100 years.[i] 

Energy self-sufficiency had eluded the state of Israel since its founding in 1948. Abundant oil and gas exploration had repeatedly been undertaken with meager result. Unlike its energy-rich Arab neighbors, Israel seemed out of luck. Then in 2009 Israel’s exploration partner, Noble Energy, discovered the Tamar field in the Levantine Basin some 50 miles west of Israel’s port of Haifa with an estimated 8.3 tcf (trillion cubic feet) of highest quality natural gas. Tamar was the world’s largest gas discovery in 2009.


At the time, total Israeli gas reserves were estimated at only 1.5 tcf. Government estimates were that Israel’s sole operating field, Yam Tethys, which supplies about 70 percent of the country’s natural gas, would be depleted within three years. 

With Tamar, prospects began to look considerably better. Then, just a year after Tamar, the same consortium led by Noble Energy struck the largest gas find in its decades-long history at Leviathan in the same Levantine geological basin. Present estimates are that the Leviathan field holds at least 17 tcf of gas. [ii]Israel went from a gas famine to feast in a matter of months. 

With the Tamar and now Leviathan discoveries, Israel was beginning to discuss how to become a major natural gas export nation as well as whether to significantly tax s and oil revenues and place it into an Israeli Sovereign Wealth Fund that would make long-term investments in the Israeli economy as China and many Arab OPEC nations do. [iii]

“The Levant Basin Province is comparable to some of the other large provinces around the world,” noted a spokesperson from the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Energy Resources Program. “Its gas resources are bigger than anything we have assessed in the United States.” [iv]

Perhaps sensing that major oil and gas discoveries were being confirmed with potential to change the geopolitics of the entire region, the USGS launched its first-ever estimate of the total reserves of oil and gas in the broad region encompassing the Eastern Mediterranean including the Aegean Basin offshore Greece and Turkey and Cyprus, the Levant Basin offshore Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and the Nile Basin offshore Egypt. Their conclusion was impressive to put it mildly. 

The USGS, using all data from previous drilling and geologic surveys of the region concluded, “undiscovered oil and gas resources of the Levant Basin Province amount to 1.68 billion barrels of oil, and 122 tcf of gas. Additionally, according to USGS estimates, “undiscovered oil and gas resources of the Nile Delta Basin Province (bounded by the Nile Cone to the west, by Strabo to the north, by the Pytheus and Cyprus Trenches to the east and by the Levant Basin to the south) are estimated to be approximately 1.76 bbl (of oil), and 223 tcf of natural gas.” [v] 

The USGS calculated the total for the eastern Mediterranean as a whole currently at 345 tcf of gas and 3.4 billion barrels of oil. Suddenly the entire region is facing completely new geopolitical challenges and conflict potentials.

To put the numbers into perspective, the USGS estimates that Russia’s West Siberian Basin, the world’s largest known gas basin, holds 643 tcf of gas. As well, the Middle East and North Africa regions have several natural gas-rich areas, including the Rub AlKhali Basin (426 trillion cubic feet) in southwestern Saudi Arabia and Northern Yemen; the Greater Ghawar Uplift in eastern Saudi Arabia (227 tcf) and the Zagros Fold Belt (212 tcf) along the Persian Gulf and into Iraq and Iran. [vi]

Just months earlier, securing foreign gas was a national security priority of Israel as existing domestic gas supplies dwindled dangerously low. Further adding to the energy crisis were the so-called Arab Spring protests sweeping across Egypt into Libya in early 2011.The revolts toppled Mubarak, under whose regime Egypt had supplied some 40% of Israeli natural gas. With Mubarak toppled and the ban lifted on Egypt’s Islamic parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafist Al-Nour Party, the gas pipeline delivering Egypt’s gas to Israel was target of repeated sabotage and disruptions, the most recent February of this year in northern Sinai. Israel was becoming more than nervous about its future energy security. [vii]

Lebanon reaction fuels new frictions

Discovery of Leviathan by Israel in the waters offshore immediately triggered a new geopolitical conflict as Lebanon claimed that part of the gas field lay in Lebanese territorial waters in Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Lebanon delivered maps to the UN to back its claim, to which Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman retorted, “We won’t give an inch.” 

The fly in the Mediterranean energy soup is the fact that Israel, like the USA, has never ratified the 1982UN Convention on Law of the Sea dividing world subsea mineral rights. The Israeli gas wells at Leviathan are clearly within undisputed Israeli territory as Lebanon affirms, but Lebanon believes the field extends over into their subsea waters as well. The Lebanese Hezbollah claims that the Tamar gas field, which is due to begin gas deliveries by the end of this year, belongs to Lebanon. 

Washington has lost no time adding political gasoline to the natural gas dispute between Lebanon and Israel.  In July of 2011 as Israel prepared to submit its own proposal to the UN as to where the offshore demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel should run, Frederick Hof, US diplomat responsible for special affairs regarding Syria and Lebanon, told Lebanon that the Obama Administration endorsed the Lebanese document, adding to the growing tensions reported since outbreak of the Arab Spring between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama. [viii]

Netanyahu has reportedly recently urged America’s eighth wealthiest person, his close friend Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson to pour millions directly into the campaigns of Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. It represents an unprecedented direct Israeli intervention into US presidential candidates’ campaigns, in order to try to defeat a second Obama term.[ix]New issues of control of the vast energy reserves being discovered off Israeli and Lebanese, Cypriot, Turkish and Greek shores will clearly play a growing role in one of the most entangled political regions on Earth.

Part II:
Rising energy tensions in the Aegean
—Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria;
3 March, 2012.      

The discovery in late 2010 of the huge natural gas bonanza off Israel’s Mediterranean shores triggered other neighboring countries to look more closely at their own waters. The results revealed that the entire eastern Mediterranean is swimming in huge untapped oil and gas reserves. That discovery is having enormous political, geopolitical as well as economic consequences. It well may have potential military consequences too.

Preliminary exploration has confirmed similarly impressive reserves of gas and oil in the waters off Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and potentially, Syria. 

Greek ‘energy Sirtaki’ 

Not surprisingly, amid its disastrous financial crisis the Greek government began serious exploration for oil and gas. Since then the country has been in a curious kind of a dance with the IMF and EU governments, a kind of “energy Sirtaki” over who will control and ultimately benefit from the huge resource discoveries there. 

In December 2010, as it seemed the Greek crisis might still be resolved without the by-now huge bailouts or privatizations, Greece’s Energy Ministry formed a special group of experts to research the prospects for oil and gas in Greek waters. Greece’s Energean Oil & Gas began increased investment into drilling in the offshore waters after a successful smaller oil discovery in 2009. Major geological surveys were made. Preliminary estimates now are that total offshore oil in Greek waters exceeds 22 billion barrels in the Ionian Sea off western Greece and some 4billion barrels in the northern Aegean Sea. [x] 

The southern Aegean Sea and Cretan Sea are yet to be explored, so the numbers could be significantly higher. An earlier Greek National Council for Energy Policy report stated that “Greece is one of the least explored countries in Europe regarding hydrocarbon (oil and gas-w.e.) potentials.”[xi]According to one Greek analyst, Aristotle Vassilakis, “surveys already done that have measured the amount of natural gas estimate it to reach some nine trillion dollars.” [xii]Even if only a fraction of that is available, it would transform the finances of Greece and the entire region.

Tulane University oil expert David Hynes told an audience in Athens recently that Greece could potentially solve its entire public debt crisis through development of its new-found gas and oil. He conservatively estimates that exploitation of the reserves already discovered could bring the country more than €302 billion over 25 years. The Greek government instead has just been forced to agree to huge government layoffs, wage cuts and pension cuts to get access to a second EU and IMF loan that will only drive the country deeper into an economic decline. [xiii]

Notably, the IMF and EU governments, among them Germany, demand instead that Greece sell off its valuable ports and public companies, among them of course, Greek state oil companies, to reduce state debt. Under the best of conditions the asset selloffs would bring the country perhaps €50 billion.[xiv]Plans call for the Greek state-owned natural gas company, DEPA, to privatize65% of its shares to reduce debt.[xv]Buyers would likely come from outside the country, as few Greek companies are in a position in the crisis to take it.

One significant problem, aside from the fact the IMF demands Greece selloff its public oil interests, is the fact that Greece has not declared a deeper exclusive economic zone like most other countries which drill for oil. There was seen little need until now. An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) gives a state special mineral rights in its declared waters under the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in November 1994. Under UNCLOS III, a nation can claim an EEZ of 200 nautical miles from its coastline. [xvi]

Turkey has previously stated it would consider it an act of war if Greece drilled further into the Aegean. [xvii]Until now that did not seem to have serious economic consequences, as no oil or gas reserves were known. Now it’s an entirely different ballgame. 

Evangelos Kouloumbis, former Greek Industry Minister recently stated that Greece could cover “50% its needs with the oil to be found in offshore fields in the Aegean Sea, and the only obstacle to that is the Turkish opposition for an eventual Greek exploitation.”[xviii]

Hillary dances the Sirtaki too…

In July 2011 Washington joined the Greek energy Sirtaki. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Athens with energy on her mind. That was clear by the fact she brought with her her Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, Richard Morningstar. Morningstar was husband Bill Clinton’s Special Advisor to the President on Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, and one of the Washington strategic operatives in the geopolitical battles to dismember the Soviet Union and surround a chaos-ridden Russia with hostile pro-NATO former states of the USSR. Morningstar, along with his controversial aide, Matthew Bryza, have been the key Washington architects of Washington’s geopolitically-motivated oil and gas pipeline projects that would isolate Russia and its Gazprom gas resources from the EU. Bryza is an open opponent of Russian Gazprom’s South Stream gas pipeline that would transit the eastern Mediterranean states. [xix]Clearly the Obama Administration is not at all neutral about the new Greek oil and gas discoveries. Three days after Hillary left Athens the Greek government proposed creation of a new government agency to run tenders for oil and gas surveys and ultimate drilling bids.

Morningstar is the US specialist in economic warfare against Russian energy diplomacy. He was instrumental in backing the controversial B-T-C oil pipeline from Baku through Tbilisi in Georgia across to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, a costly enterprise designed solely to bypass Russian oil pipeline transit. He has openly proposed that Greece and Turkey drop all historic differences over Cyprus, over numerous other historic issues and agree to jointly pool all their oil and gas reserves in the Aegean Sea. He also has told the Greek government it should forget cooperation with Moscow on the South Stream and Bourgas-Alexandroupolis gas pipeline projects. [xx]

According to a report from Greek political analyst Aristotle Vassilakis published in July 2011, Washington’s motive for pushing Greece to join forces with Turkey on oil and gas is to force a formula to divide resulting oil and gas revenues. According to his report, Washington proposes that Greece get 20% of revenues, Turkey another 20% and the US-backed Noble Energy Company of Houston Texas, the company successfully drilling in the Israeli and Greek offshore waters, would get the lion’s share of 60%.[xxi]

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, is a Washington lobbyist for Noble Energy. [xxii]

And some Cyprus complications…

As if these geopolitical complications were not enough, Noble Energy has also discovered huge volumes of gas off the waters of the Republic of Cyprus. In December 2011 Noble announced a successful well offshore Cyprus in a field estimated to hold at least 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Noble’s CEO, Charles Davidson remarked to the press, “This latest discovery in Cyprus further highlights the quality and significance of this world-class basin.” [xxiii]

Cyprus is a complicated piece of real estate. In the 1970’s as declassified US Government documents recently revealed, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger actively encouraged and facilitated arms to the Turkish regime of Kissinger’s former Harvard student and then- Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, to stage a military invasion of Cyprus in 1974, in effect partitioning the island between an ethnically Turkish north and an ethnically Greek Republic of Cyprus in the south, a division which remains.  The Kissinger strategy, backed by the British was believed intended to create a pretext for a permanent US and British military listening post in the eastern Mediterranean during the Cold War. [xxiv]

Today the ethnically Greek south, where Noble has discovered large gas deposits, is a member of the EU. Its President, Demetris Christofis, is the only national leader in the European Union who is a communist. He is also a close friend of Israel, and of Russia. In addition, he is a major critic of American foreign policy, as well as of Turkey. [xxv]

Now Israel is planning to build an underwater gas pipeline from the Israeli Levantine fields across Cyprus waters onto the Greek mainland where it would be sold on the EU market. The Cyprus and Israel governments have mutually agreed on delimitation of their respective economic zones, leaving Turkey in the cold. Turkey openly threatened Cyprus for signing the agreement with Noble Energy. That led to a Russian statement that it would not tolerate Turkish threats against Cyprus, further complicating Turkish-Russian relations. [xxvi]

Turkish-Israeli relations, once quite friendly, have become increasingly strained in recent years under the Erdogan foreign policies. Ankara has expressed concern about Israel’s recent ties with its historic antagonists, Greece and the Greek side of Cyprus. Turkey’s ally the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, fears it could miss out on its fair share of the gas after Israel and Nicosia signed an agreement to divide the 250 kilometers of sea that separate them. [xxvii]

It becomes evident, especially when we glance at a map of the eastern Mediterranean, that the oil and gas prospective bonanza there is a rapidly unfolding conflict zone of tectonic magnitude involving strategic US, Russian, EU, Israeli and Turkish, Syrian and Lebanese interests. 


[i] Charles Levinson, Guy Chazan, Big Gas Find Sparks a Frenzy in Israel, The Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2010
[ii] Offshore Energy Today Staff, Israel:  Leviathan Holds More Gas Than Previously Estimated, Offshore Energy Today, December 19, 2011
[iii] AFP, Israel hasenough gas 'to become exporter,' 29 December 2010.
[iv] US Department of the Interior, Levant basin holds 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2010–3014, March 2010-April 10, 2010.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Avi Bar-Eli and Itai Trilnick, Forecast Blackout Israel is about to run out of natural gas: Shortage expected to last at least until next year, when the Tamar gas field starts production, February 2, 2012, Haaretz. See  also Reuters, Blast Hits Gas Pipeline Between Egypt, Jordan, Israel, 4 February 2012.

[viii] Barak Ravid, US Backs Lebanon on Maritime Border Dispute with Israel, July 10, 2011,
[ix] Reuters, Sheldon Adelson Probe: Donations From Casino Owner Could Embarrass Republican Candidates, February 8, 2012. For more on the Adelson-Gingrich-Romney-Netanyahu connection see, Max Blumenthal, The Bibi Connection, January 12, 2012.
[x] Ioannis Michaletos, Greek Companies Step Up Offshore Oil Exploration—Large Reserves Possible, December 8, 2010.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Hellas Frappe, Hillary came to Greece to seal oil exploration deals! July 21, 2011
[xiii] Chris Blake,Drilling for oil in the Aegean  may help ease Greece’s debt crisis, July 7, 2011,
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] John Daly, Greece Considering Plugging Aegean Islands into Turkish Energy Grid, 22 November 2011.

[xvi] United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of these of 10 December 1982: PART VI: CONTINENTAL SHELF, Article76, Definition of the continental shelf.
[xvii] Chris Blake, op. cit.
[xviii] Ioannis Michaletos, op.cit.
[xix] Hellas Frappe, op. cit.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Hugh Naylor, Vastgas fields found off Israel’s shores cause trouble at home and abroad, January 24, 2011.

[xxiii] Noble Energy Press Release,Significant Natural Gas Discovery Offshore Republic of Cyprus, December 28, 2011.
[xxiv] Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane, New documents link Kissinger to two 1970s coups, June 26, 2007
[xxv] Yilan, Cyprus conflict defies ready solution, May 30, 2011.
[xxvi] Stephen Blank, Turkey and Cyprus Gas: More Troubles Ahead in 2012, Turkey Analyst, vol. 5 no. 1, 9 January 2011, accessed in
[xxvii] Hugh Naylor, op. cit.    


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