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Happy Hanukkah, indeed

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LONDON -- Recent developments have ruined one of Golda Meir's favourite jokes. The former Israeli prime minister was known to quip: "Know why Jews don't like Moses? For 40 years he leads them through the desert, and then he brings them to the only place in the Middle East without oil!"

It took a bit longer than 40 years, but it turns out Moses wasn't so meshugge after all: Israel now boasts Saudi-sized reserves of oil and gas less than 160 kilometres off its coast. Only a few days ago, Woodside Petroleum, Australia's largest oil and gas company, announced an investment of $1.3 billion in Israel's largest offshore gas field -- appropriately named Leviathan.

And the biblical references don't stop there. The news of what may well become Israel's largest single foreign investment ever came just in time for Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that ends Dec. 16 and that celebrates the miraculous longevity of a single vessel of sacred oil for the golden menorah that stood in Jerusalem's Holy Temple.

If successful, Woodside's exploitation of Leviathan has the potential to transform Israel from an energy dwarf into a hydrocarbon giant, and maybe even a major exporter. Will Israel's energy bonanza turn out to be a latter-day Hanukkah -- "dedication" or "blessing" -- for the beleaguered Jewish state, or will Palestine and Lebanon, which both have overlapping claims, only bring more conflict to a region in which everything from water to air is contested.

But for Israelis -- even the secular sort -- divine providence seems a plausible explanation for this amazing luck. Only a few years ago, Israel had to rely on Mari B, a single well in the Yam Tethys field near the city of Ashkelon, to cover 70 per cent its natural gas needs. That source was projected to dry up, well, just about now.

Egypt provided the difference in the country's natural gas requirements, under a Hosni Mubarak-era deal that the current government in Cairo, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, seems less inclined to continue. Since the start of the Egyptian revolution, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have blown up the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas into Israel (and Jordan) 15 times. But Israel's dependency on outside hydrocarbons might soon be over, thanks to an amazing string of discoveries in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches for 320 kilometres off its shores. In January 2009, an Israeli-American consortium made the world's largest natural gas discovery for that year in the Tamar field, west of the city of Haifa: a total extractable reserve of eight trillion to nine trillion cubic feet, roughly equivalent to two years' worth of the total U.S. residential demand for natural gas. A few months later, Dalit field, off the coast of Hadera, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, was found to contain another 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

But Israel really struck it rich in October 2010, when that same consortium discovered more than 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Leviathan: the world's biggest natural gas find in a decade. By itself, Leviathan could provide Israel with all the natural gas it would need for the next 100 years.

On top of all that, shale oil reserves under Israel itself could total 250 billion barrels, according to a 2011 report from the London-based World Energy Council, ranking it third in the world behind China and the United States. Combined, Israel's oil and gas reserves would be about equal to Saudi Arabia's total energy reserves. Although the first drop of these presumed shale oil reserves has yet to be extracted, Canadian and Russian oil companies are falling over each other to offer their help in doing so.

As reversals of fortune go, this is miraculous enough to rival the original Hanukkah story.


Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and journalist. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders and other cartographic curiosities.

--Foreign Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 A13

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