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Peace dividend: New off-shore oil drillings for east Med coast

Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon are slated to benefit from newly-planned oil drillings in the deep water basins off their Mediterranean coast lines, where some experts see enormous oil reservoirs.
by Jonathan Fedler

Prospects of a vast new oil-bearing deposit in the eastern Mediterranean are attracting the world's major oil companies to this region. The waning of the Arab boycott which kept these companies from exploring in and near Israel has encouraged new thinking and new possibilities.

Before 1977 two definite oil regions were identified in the Middle East. The largest and richest of these stretches between northern Syria and Saudi Arabia and crosses the valleys lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf Emirates and the eastern part of Saudi Arabia all enjoy the benefits of this huge oil treasure.

The second region, under Egyptian jurisdiction, stretches from Ram Sudar in the north, through the Bal-Blain, Babu-Rodum and Babu-Tor fields, passing mainly through the Gulf of Suez and its continental rim.

But geologists now estimate that there is a third enormous oil field, namely on the southern and eastern fringes of the eastern Mediterranean.

Professor Akiva Flaxer, for example, geologist and lecturer geophysics at the University of Tel-Aviv, believes the emerging third region holds the potential for discovery of large quantities of oil. This view gained further credence recently when the Lebanese Minister of Energy announced that within a year two American companies will start drilling for oil in deep sea water off the coast of Tripoli. The sea-bed there reaches a depth of more than 100 meters.

Opposite the Mediterranean coast of Sinai (at Bardawil), the sea-bed is very wide and stretches over about 40 km. Further north, at Ashdod, it narrows to about 15 km., opposite the Haifa coast it is only four km., and further on, opposite the Lebanese coast, it dwindles to about one km.

Until now it was assumed that the interesting drilling area is in shallow water. Now the Americans appear to believe, as in the case of the Lebanese coast, that there is potential in deep water as well. This has strengthened the conviction of those who believe that there is also a potentially impressive amount of oil to be discovered offshore of Israel.

An Israeli consortium plans to carry out an appropriately named "Deep Sea" drilling 40 km. off the coast, at a depth of more than 600 meters. It will be carried out in the largest trap so far discovered off the coast of Israel. The estimated area of the target layer is about 105 square km. It is larger than any known trap in the North Sea or in the Gulf of Suez and is comparable to known traps in the Persian Gulf.

If the drilling off the Lebanese coast does in fact begin during the course of the coming year, the coast of Israel will form the center of a "sandwich", with the Americans drilling in the north and the Egyptians in the south.

Israeli offshore discoveries have so far been within the shallow water area.The Isramco Company's first marine drilling, "Ashdod Sea 1", in 1989, was terminated at a depth of 3,800 meters, owing to a technical breakdown.This was followed by "Ashdod Sea 2", which led to the discovery of very high quality oil. But the attempt to extract oil was again cut short by technical problems. Isramco renewed drilling there last year. At the firm's present drilling, "Jaffa Sea 1", north of Tel Aviv, indications of gas and oil were discovered earlier this year.

Isramco's new "Deep Sea" drilling and the American drilling off the Lebanese coast will be in the deeper water area and will enable geological probings in the most promising sections of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea.

As a result of these developments, oil experts suggest that the next two years will see drilling of international proportions in this area. Six companies and four off-shore rigs will be operating along the east coast of the Mediterranean.

However, there are other reasons why foreign companies are likely to step up their presence in the region. As far back as last October, executives of the two Israeli state-owned companies, Naptha and Hanal, met with their counterparts at major US companies: Amoco, Pennzoil and Marathon.

The talks centered on Middle East cooperation in the field of energy that would include Israel. According to one report, the Americans considered construction of pipelines to carry gas from Qatar or Egypt to Israel as the largest possible immediate project. However, they did not rule out future cooperation in other areas, including oil exploration on Israeli territory.

In March, former US Secretary of State James Baker, acting as adviser for US-based Enron held talks with the Israeli energy ministry and the Israel Electric Corp. regarding the sale of natural gas to Israel. Enron is interested in bringing into Israel natural gas from a number of Persian Gulf states in which it has business interests. It has proposed establishing terminals at Eilat and on the Mediterranean (with a possible view to the European market) as well as a pipeline and processing installations.Total investment required for the project is estimated at $4 billion.

In June, one of the world's largest oil and gas drilling companies, US-based Parker, said it wanted to acquire the state-owned Israeli drilling company Lapidoth, which is to be privatized shortly. The Egyptian drilling company, NDC, is reportedly, also interested in acquiring shares and participating in drillings in Israel.

Jordan, too, and the Palestinians, are expected to be involved in future consortia exploring for hydrocarbons in the region, especially in the Dead Sea basin.

(The writer is an Israeli economic journalist.)
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