What Investors Need to Know About Israel's Natural Gas Market

A power station on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea near the Israeli city of Hadera.

A power station on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea near the Israeli city of Hadera.

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s parliament on Monday approved a framework to regulate its natural gas industry, eight days after the discovery of a field in Egyptian waters damped expectations for regional exports.

While legislative hurdles to the deal remain -- Israel’s antitrust commissioner resigned in protest at the policy and has yet to be replaced, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew a separate vote to force the deal through -- the symbolic Knesset approval is a step forward for a plan that may unlock billions of dollars for the country’s gas explorers and their partners.

What’s the big deal?

In 2009, a 10.8 trillion-cubic feet natural gas field, Tamar, was discovered in Israeli waters. Leviathan, a field almost twice the size, was found a year later.

For a nation of 8 million people lacking in natural resources, development of the offshore gas brings Israel closer to energy independence, with the additional prospect of revenue from exports. The gas can lower costs and boost profits for local industry.

Who are the key players?

Israel’s Delek Group Ltd., the country’s largest energy company by market capitalization, and Houston, Texas-based Noble Energy Inc. hold 45 percent and 40 percent stakes in Leviathan, respectively. 

The delays have made Delek Group and its units the worst performers on Tel Aviv’s benchmark stock index in the past 12 months and increased the volatility of shares. The TA Oil & Gas Index has traded below its 50-, 100- and 200-day moving averages for 13 days, the longest such streak in almost seven months.

Volatility of Delek Group Ltd. shares
Volatility of Delek Group Ltd. shares

Meanwhile, blue-chip explorers have skirted investments in Israeli gas for fear of upsetting the Arab world, where they are also active. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum walked away from a $2.6 billion deal to buy a quarter of Leviathan last year, citing commercial obstacles in Israel.

What does natural gas mean for the shekel?

Natural gas production has increased the country’s current account surplus. For every $1 billion improvement in the current account, the shekel appreciates about 1 percent, the Bank of Israel estimates.

In 2013, the central bank introduced a foreign-exchange purchase plan to offset the shekel’s gains, buying a total of $5.6 billion in 2013 and 2014. This year, it will purchase $3.1 billion.

Israel is also planning a sovereign wealth fund to help mitigate the shekel’s strength.

What does Israel’s policy actually say?

Israel’s government intends to introduce competition to the Noble-Delek duopoly. Under the proposed framework, Delek Group must sell its 31 percent stake in Tamar -- held through Delek Drilling LP and Avner Oil Exploration LP -- within six years. Noble Energy needs to reduce its stake from 36 percent to 25 percent in the same timeframe.

Both companies must also sell their stakes in the smaller Karish and Tanin fields within 14 months and there will be price controls on sales to the Israeli market.

What deals are already in the pipeline?

Noble and its Israeli partners signed a letter of intent in September 2014 to supply the National Electric Power Company of Jordan with gas for 15 years at a cost of $15 billion. The U.S. State Department also helped broker a $771 million deal between Noble, Jordan’s Arab Potash Co., and U.S.-affiliated Jordan Bromine Co.

Why is the recent Egyptian discovery such a threat?

The partners in Israel’s fields signed letters of intent this year to supply gas to liquefaction plants in Egypt. Since the deals are non-binding, there was speculation that the Egyptian discovery would reduce reliance on Israeli gas, jeopardizing the future of exports. Production from Egypt’s new field, the largest yet found in the Mediterranean, could start in 2017, some two years earlier than when Leviathan is targeted to go on line. That’s another blow to the Israeli partners already hit by falling energy prices and the regulatory issues that have delayed development of their biggest field.

Egypt said its find doesn’t close the option of liquefying Israeli gas at its plants for exports to other markets, should it find financial benefits from the transit of the fuel. Egypt has no intention of importing Israeli gas to its own market, according to Petroleum Ministry spokesman Hamdy Abdel Aziz.

What next for Israel after Egypt’s find?

Israel may have to look to other countries, such as Turkey, to expand its export market, and review the option of setting up a plant to liquefy natural gas for transplant. Delek Group said it’s weighing investments in well operators after the latest decline in oil prices.

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