Egypt’s Chaos Stirs Energy Fear in Israel

A decade ago, the United States urged Israel to lean more heavily on Egypt as an energy supplier, in hopes that such an economic tie would foster cooperation and peace.

But those bonds looked more like shackles after a weekend explosion in the north Sinai desert on a terminal serving the natural gas pipeline that links the uneasy Middle East neighbors.

The blast—blamed first on sabotage, then on a leak—is expected to disrupt flow of fuel into Israel only for a few days, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there would be no difficulty making up lost supply over that time. Still, with Israel now relying on Egypt for nearly half of its natural gas, and Cairo roiling, Israel’s parliament echoed with calls for a new energy independence: “Playing with gas is playing with fire,” Knesset member Carmel Shama-Hacohen warned on Sunday.

He and others want Israel to accelerate development of new natural gas discoveries off the Mediterranean coast that Israel’s infrastructure minister, Uzi Landau, has called “the most important energy news since the founding of the state.”

The giant offshore field, named after the biblical sea monster Leviathan, holds potentially 25 trillion cubic feet (tcf) (700 billion cubic meters) of natural gas, according to Noble Energy, a Houston, Texas-based exploration company that has a stake in the find. And while that may be enough natural gas to dramatically change the energy picture for a country that has always had to rely on fuel imports, Israel is no more likely than any other nation to be able to drill its way to energy security or peace.

Neighboring Lebanon, a country in a state of war with Israel since 1973, has made claims that the gas field lies within its maritime border. “It is not unimaginable that, in the next regional war, Israeli and Lebanese military elements could target the other’s natural gas drills,” concluded an analysis in Fast Company late last year. Other analysts predict a natural gas scramble in which Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria all vie to be the first and largest gas player in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

But even if Leviathan’s wealth can be claimed peaceably, Israel’s new prospect wins it less than 1 percent of the 2,658 tcf  (75 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas reserves in the Middle East. The reserves giants are Qatar, with a third of the Middle East’s natural gas stores, and Saudi Arabia, with about a tenth. Egypt is sitting on about double the reserves of Israel’s Leviathan. Israel will be competing against these big players, who have infrastructure already in place, as it tries to develop its new resources amid the ups and—more frequent of late—downs of the natural gas market.

Whether Israel can gain a degree of energy autonomy will depend on that market, on how much it ultimately can produce each year, and how quickly its consumption grows. But in the end, the security gained through dependence on a finite, fossil resource always includes a measure of vulnerability.

Bill Richardson, who served as energy secretary during the Clinton administration, had a more optimistic view when he worked to broker a natural gas pipeline deal between Egypt and Israel. “I see that as being a bridge to an eventual peace,” Richardson said in a speech to the National Press Club on October 4, 2000. That pact, after much debate on both sides, finally was signed five years later. And Israel shifted its electric grid, which had been entirely powered by imported oil and coal, to ever-greater dependence on natural gas, especially from Egypt.

The problem was that Egypt’s own energy needs for its population of 80 million were skyrocketing. Mubarek’s government often has struggled to keep the power on at home, even while exporting fuel to Israel, among many others. There was speculation last summer that Egypt might even have to buy back the gas it sold to Israel at an enormous loss. Now, Egypt’s government grips onto power against the upheaval. And amid all that has been thrown into doubt in the Middle East, anyone must surely count the future of Egypt’s role as energy supplier to Israel.

There is another, more hopeful, side to Israel’s energy story—the abundant energy resource its neighbors can share but cannot seize.

Israel has long understood its solar energy potential; the rooftop solar hot water heaters on almost every home are testament to mandates that date back decades. Israel has been a leader in research on large-scale solar technology. Two Israeli companies, BrightSource and the company formerly known as Solel (purchased two years ago by Germany’s Siemens), are among the leaders in concentrating solar thermal projects around the world.

But solar power, while growing, still provides less than a fraction of 1 percent of Israel’s electricity. That may be changing; in December, Arava Power began construction on Israel’s first large-scale solar field, the first of dozens planned in the Arava and Negev deserts. And the government has been working toward more aggressive subsidy policies for solar and wind energy, with a goal of 10 percent renewable energy by 2020.

A key to doing that, experts say, will be removing numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The Jerusalem Post recently lamented that the West Bank settlement construction freeze stopped rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) installations there. Israel also has caps on the size of solar installations. The measure was intended to spur more companies to enter the market, but it has stymied large developments.

Also, much of the available large-scale solar potential is on kibbutz land. Kibbutzim must by law share a large stake in any business; many simply don’t have the large amount of capital on hand to invest.

As Israel focuses anew on energy security amid Egypt’s crisis, it would do well to break through the many barriers to renewable development, and look for new power not only under disputed waters and land, but also from unbound skies.

Related: “Oil Markets Churn Over Egypt’s Potential as a Gateway for Revolt

From National Geographic magazine, June 1975: “New Life for the Troubled Suez Canal”

From National Geographic magazine, ancient Egypt pictures, stories, and more.

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