Trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea

The Coming Dash for Gas

In recent years, resource disputes in the South China Sea have made headlines across the world. But another body of water -- the Mediterranean -- is rapidly becoming as volatile as its eastern cousin. Exploratory drilling near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas. Competition over the rights to tap those resources is compounding existing tensions over sovereignty and maritime borders. Without more active engagement by outside powers, these disagreements will be difficult to resolve.

Israel stands to be the main beneficiary of the eastern Mediterranean’s bounty, due mainly to the geographic distribution of recent discoveries. In 2009 and 2010, a pair of U.S.-Israeli consortiums exploring the seabed near Haifa discovered the Tamar and Leviathan fields, which collectively hold an estimated 26 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. The timing of these discoveries was opportune. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israel has suffered frequent supply interruptions and the eventual termination of its contract with Egypt, which had previously provided 40 percent of the gas Israel consumed, at below-market rates. The Tamar and Leviathan fields, once developed, could satisfy Israel’s electricity needs for the next 30 years and even allow it to become a net energy exporter.

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