Israel first discovered natural gas off its coast in 1999, in two fields called “Noa” and “MaryB” near the coastal city of Ashkelon. Production began at the MaryB site in 2004, with the majority of the natural gas going to the Israel Electric Corporation’s power plants.
In January 2009, a conglomerate of drilling companies led by Noble Energy found a larger reservoir of natural gas at the Tamar drill site, about 90 kilometers west of Haifa. In 2010, another partnership led by Delek Drilling announced that the Leviathan site had reserves even higher than Tamar.
Production began at the Tamar site in March 2013. The Leviathan site production rights, however, are still under negotiation, which is the political fight happening this year.
The Tamar site, which is 90 kilometers west of Haifa, has five wells producing gas. The gas collected from these five wells is brought, untreated, through two parallel pipelines about 150 kilometers south to a treatment platform facility called the Tamar Platform. The Tamar Platform is located about 20 km from the coast of Ashkelon, through pipelines laid on the bottom of the sea. On the platform, the gas is treated, and impurities such as trace amounts of oil or other gases are removed. The treated gas is then shipped via pipeline to Ashdod.
Tamar is a large field that can supply much of the needs of Israel for the next 15 years.
There are also two smaller fields called Tanin and Karish, about 120 kilometers off the coast of Haifa and close to the Lebanese boarder, which have about 80 billion cubic meters combined, and are still under negotiation.
The problem with deep sea drilling is that it’s impossible to know whether there is oil or gas deep in the rock section until after you drill. Geologists and geophysicists use various mapping and tomography techniques, such as penetrating waves (like ultrasound), to create a visualization of the rock bed structure in the subsurface beneath the sea floor. The only way to know whether or not there is oil or natural gas in the geological section below the sea floor, or how much is trapped there, is to drill and check. Drilling is very expensive, very deep, and the stones are very hard.
The exploration process has already been completed for the Leviathan field, which thus far is Israel’s largest field. Leviathan’s size surprised the companies involved, the government, and the public. The difficulty in predicting how much gas was in the field is part of the reason that Israel is in this political dilemma over profits and drilling rights with the gas companies.
When the companies started the [exploration] drilling, there was no competition on buying exploration rights. Israel had to work hard to convince the companies to come. But the size of the discoveries, first in Tamar and then Leviathan, was beyond anything the government expected.
“We definitely didn’t have a set of regulations that were suitable for the level of discovery,” said one Israeli hydrocarbon expert. “We’re caught in this very embarrassing situation where we sold a lease for exploration with certain conditions, and due to the huge discovery which were beyond our imagination, we decided ‘Oh, we made a mistake,’ and we are changing the rules of the game after the game was over.”
The companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the exploration process. The drilling is the most expensive part, and it’s also the riskiest part. Each individual drill costs $150 million just for the drill itself. “This is very expensive gas to produce compared to onshore gas.
The two major companies exploring Tamar and Leviathan are the US-based Noble Energy and Israel-based Delek Drilling. Other companies are also involved in the exploration and production, but to a much smaller extent. The political concern is the possibility that Noble and Delek will have a monopoly over the gas market, since they own such large shares.
Once the companies choose a spot for drilling, they perforate the sea floor. The drill bit also injects a special mud as it drills downward. This “drilling mud” is made from a clay-based substance calibrated to the specific conditions of the well. It is injected during the drilling process in order to cool the bit as well as maintain the integrity of the well by not allowing liquids or gas to flow upwards while the drilling is in progress.
The drill must operate under enormous pressure. Due to the depth of the fields, the gas is trapped under pressure that can be 400-500 times the pressure at sea level. This pressure causes the gas to flow into the well and upwards.
In the Tamar field, the gas is also transported through pipes to the treatment platform at high pressure of about 90 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. The natural gas has some impurities in it, including trace amounts of oil.
After being treated, the offshore natural gas from the Tamar field is piped 20 kilometers along the sea bed and meets Israel at a receiving plant in Ashdod. Once it arrives on the mainland, a government-owned corporation called Israel Natural Gas Lines has a network of 430 kilometers of natural gas pipes that snake around the country. This distribution network brings the natural gas to eight power plants and major energy consumers, like big factories.
Currently, only major consumers are directly connected to natural gas. There are five smaller regional gas companies who are building infrastructure to bring gas to medium-level consumers, like hospitals, office buildings, malls, and smaller factories. But the process of laying gas lines is difficult given the cost and the bureaucratic hurdles of construction in Israel.
Israel now gets approximately 60 percent of its electricity from natural gas. Environmental activists encourage the use of natural gas, especially in power plants, because natural gas pollutes much less than oil or coal.