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Israel and Cyprus: Untying the Gordian Knot on East Mediterranean Gas

Antonia Dimou

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Gas exploration and drilling activities in Israeli and Cypriot waters along with licensing rounds for blocks near the super-giant Zohr gas field raise the likelihood for large gas discoveries in the East Mediterranean. Israel and Cyprus speed up efforts for the development of energy resources to be primarily channeled to Europe.

Europe is considered as prime export destination for regional supplies of liquefied natural gas given that the continent is seeking to enhance energy supply and transit security.

Israel seems to be taking two steps forward and one step back on natural gas. A renewed Israeli gas regulation framework has portended a competitive market as new companies acquire offshore drilling rights. It is in this context that a Greek company,  Energean Oil and Gas has secured full ownership of Israeli Karish and Tanin gas fields at the price of 148 million dollars aiming to deliver 88 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas to the Israeli market in the next forty years. The Greek company has submitted a field development plan to the Israeli government and secured sales agreements for more than 3 bcm annually at a 20 percent price discount compared to Leviathan partners’ pricing to Israeli power provider Dalia Power Energies and its sister company Or Power Energies. This arrangement has set the stage for competition that will benefit consumers and the Israeli economy.  

Reservations however are high over the smooth development of the Leviathan gas field due to the fact that the field’s partners – Noble Energy, Avner Oil Exploration, Ratio Oil Exploration and Delek Drilling – abandoned initial plans at the first stage of development to build a floating offshore platform over the field’s wells thus narrowing gas exports to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the domestic Israeli market. No doubt that prospects for the field’s first stage development are benefited by the $10 billion contract signed between Leviathan gas field partners and Jordan’s National Electric Power Company to sell gas to the latter for the next fifteen years.

A prime challenge is that Leviathan field partners are likely to develop transportation infrastructure that will be used exclusively by Leviathan blocking out competitors and endangering prospects for future gas discoveries in Israel. The reason is that without Leviathan’s economies of scale, competitors will have to finance their own transportation infrastructure thus raising at prohibitive levels the costs of developing smaller fields. An additional challenge is related to the new Egyptian legislation, called Resolution No. 196 of 2017, that foresees the establishment of a gas regulatory authority and permits private companies to import gas from third countries like Israel. Despite the new legislation, the likelihood for direct export of Israeli gas to Egypt is minimal because of the Egyptian government’s position that gas agreements with Israel can procced only if the latter’s companies withdraw from arbitration that has ordered Egypt to pay 3 billion dollars in compensation for losses sustained when gas supplies to Israel halted in 2012.

To overcome current challenges, Israel should urge the joint use of Israeli Leviathan field’s transportation infrastructure or alternatively support the development of joint national infrastructure to overcome prohibitively high costs associated with developing smaller fields in Israel like the Dalit and the Simshon gas fields. The Israeli government should also address risks that worry investors like force majeure and export sustainability by guaranteeing a certain amount of financial recovery though the existing compensation mechanism.

In search of commercially viable levels of hydrocarbon resources, Cyprus posesses a central position in the regional setting. Nicosia’s 3rd international licensing round for three blocks within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) resulted in the awarding of licenses to Italian ENI and French Total for Block 6; ENI for block 8; and, American Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum for block 10. Notably, the attraction of international majors and the subsequent awarding of exploration blocks signal a vote of confidence in the island’s EEZ. The July drilling in block 11 that was commissioned to Total and ENI in the 2nd licensing round has been critical as first results show that the geology of Egypt’s Zohr gas field extends into Cyprus’s EEZ. This assessment raises expectations for the findings of the two drillings scheduled for the second half of 2018 in block 10 that lies in close proximity to the super-giant Zohr field. It is estimated that oil majors’ plans center on connecting gas discoveries in Cyprus with Egypt’s by pipeline and re-export reserves as liquefied natural gas by utilizing the Egyptian Idku and Damietta LNG facilities.

There is widespread belief that political tensions as consequence of the collapse of the Cyprus Peace talks and competing EEZ claims between Cyprus and Turkey can impact negatively regional energy cooperation. The resolution of the Cyprus conflict is viewed by many as prerequisite for the construction of a pipeline that would connect Israeli Leviathan field to the Turkish coast given that the pipeline will have to cross through the island’s EEZ. A number of energy experts insist that “the Philippines arbitration case vs China over South China Sea” can serve as model for the settlement of competing EEZ claims between Cyprus and Turkey, while others consider the Malta-Libya arbitration case as more approrpiate given that Turkey is not signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The development of energy resources is a demanding process thus the government of Cyprus should support the joint monetization of Cypriot and Egyptian gas on the basis that economies of scale reinforce profitability and produce higher government revenues; and, pass legislation that foresees establishment of a National Investments Fund where revenues from hydrocarbon exploitation will be deposited for the benefit of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

Gas can remain under-developed for years to come if challenges are not properly addressed by Israel and Cyprus. To unleash the full potential of their wealth, consultation between Tel Aviv and Nicosia could allow a coordinated development of fields due to their close geographic proximity given that international investors long for a stable political environment for capital-intensive projects to proceed. Making the best use of existing underused export infrastructure with a number of promising fields in both Israel and Cyprus can be the key to unlocking the region’s energy potential.

Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles

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MBS Outmaneuvers Russia’s Oil Politicking

Saad Khoury

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In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, one of the major economic consequences has been the substantial hit to the energy industry.

Ever since the virus began to spread in January, global markets have been tumbling. This set the price of oil in a downward spiral, reversing many gains  that had accumulated over the last several months. Demand for oil dropped for the first time in over a decade and forecasters at the International Energy Agency assess the decline will continue. While natural gas and coal markets have also been hit, oil demand has dropped more pronouncedly given it supports the freight and logistics sectors that have ground to a halt in recent weeks. The lack of demand for oil in China alone has had a devastating impact – Beijing’s newfound hunger for the commodity was responsible for most of the price increases recently.

However, these unique phenomena have had effects far beyond the purely economic. Politically speaking, the oil market crisis has pitted two global energy giants against each other, producing very intriguing results.

In early March, a meeting took place between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten other oil-producing countries, known as “OPEC+”. During the conference ending on March 6, Saudi Arabia’s leader, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) reportedly pushed the idea of coordinating a reduction of output between Saudi Arabia and Russia. MBS planned to reduce output by over 1 million barrels per day, offsetting the major decrease in demand that had been triggered by the corona crisis to stabilize the market. The plan seemed like it was ready to go through until Moscow announced at the last minute that it would refuse. The Kremlin’s about-face came as a shock to OPEC and the international community who saw the move as an attempt to torpedo and politicize the oil sector.

Indeed, oil prices plunged by nearly 10% following the surprise move. It had been widely expected that the Russians would go along with the plan, simply because the alternative, i.e. leaving oil markets in a high-supply-low-demand frenzy, seemed much worse.

So what was at the heart of Russia’s bizarre decision? Revenge.

Washington imposed sanctions on Russia’s oil giant, Rosneft, a month ago over the company’s continued support in selling Venezuela’s oil. In an effort to retaliate, and perhaps prevent future American sanctions, Moscow was hoping to get Riyadh on its side in a plan to inflict economic pain on US shale producers. Moscow has for long felt American shale has been getting a free ride on the back of OPEC+ production cuts. For Moscow’s plan to work, it would still need the support of OPEC+ to ensure that price drops remained temporary and sustainable, since Russia’s oil economy cannot support its country playing oil politics for too long or for too much.

MSB on his part refused to take Russia’s actions lying down.

Almost immediately after Russia’s decision, Riyadh cut its official selling price for April down to $8, from a previous $14, in an effort to pressure Russia back into a deal. Days later, the Saudi government said it would begin increasing oil output to reach a record 13 million barrels per day. The decision came after authorities had already announced they were planning to increase output to 12.3 million. In a statement, Saudi Aramco, the largest energy producer in the world, stated, “it received a directive from the Ministry of Energy to increase its maximum sustainable capacity from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million.”

In essence, MBS has outmaneuvered the Russians in their attempt to hurt the global market and circumvent the effects of sanctions. In other words, MBS called Russia’s bluff by lowering prices even further so that the Kremlin could not dictate terms to OPEC. An impressive example of standing up to Russian manipulation, something that Western powers have been struggling to do for years. 

Russia on its part has been reeling from the effects of the Prince’s decision. 

On March 10, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak sought to project confidence, but acknowledged there was a decrease in prices and an increase in volatility. Novak also seemed to have admitted that his government made a mistake and had sought to reach out to the Saudis to “scheduled further meetings to estimate the situation.”

It is important to highlight that Russia was very likely thrown off balance by the Saudi reaction here. Moscow is not used to having its highhanded moves being responded to in kind, and almost certainly did not expect MBS to respond the way he did.  

While the future of this fallout is still unknown, one thing is certain: MBS has demonstrated his country will not be another pushover to Russian aggression.  

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Saudis’ price war or a Russian plot against U.S. shale?

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Since early Monday, the announcement of a “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two biggest OPEC+ allies, hit the headlines of almost all of the world’s news agencies and outlets and released a wave of panic across the markets all around the world.

Following the two sides’ bitter break up on Friday, oil markets started the week with a free fall; prices plunged nearly 30 percent on Monday to record the sharpest one-day fall in the past 29 years when the first Persian Gulf War was started in 1991.

Brent crude futures fell to nearly $30 on early Monday, the prices, however, bounced back later that day as the impacts of the event faded.

Energy experts and analysts are suggesting two completely different scenarios to explain the series of events that led to the Friday decision.

In one scenario, the one that is broadcasted globally, Saudi Arabia which wanted higher prices or at least wanted to maintain the current price levels asked for more cuts but Russia was OK with the current prices and even was ready for lower ranges so they didn’t agree and the OPEC+ deal ended.

The second scenario, which is more intriguing and more controversial, says that there is no “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and what we are witnessing is, in fact, Russia declaring war against the U.S.’s “global energy dominance”!

To learn more about the issue, the Tehran Times conducted an interview with Mahmoud Khaqani, an international energy expert. What follows is a summary of the expert’s views on the matter.

Saudis and Russia

Obviously, these days Saudi Arabia is not experiencing its best days. The Kingdom is under pressure both economically and politically.

According to Khaqani, the plunge in oil prices due to the sharp decline in global demand following the spread of coronavirus and its impact on the global economy and transportation has added significantly to the crown prince’s problems causing the young prince to call for deepening of the current 1.8 million cuts.

When faced with disagreement from its biggest non-OPEC allay Russia, the angry Saudi immediately lashed back by offering huge discounts for their oil prices and announcing that they would boost their production to more than 12 million barrels per day (bpd).

Russia, on the other hand, has maintained a calm attitude, saying that its oil industry is resilient enough to keep its market share and withstand even higher price downturns, he said.

Russia and the U.S.

Khaqani believes that the Russians are in fact at war with the U.S. oil industry, and Washington’s use of oil as a strategic asset.

What they call “price war” has already hit the U.S. oil industry hard since Friday and the persistence of the situation could damage the U.S oil industry and dethrone the U.S. from its position as the world’s largest oil producer.

Russia has targeted not only the U.S. oil industry but also the country’s bigger strategic programs for using oil and energy as leverage for applying corrective sanction policies, which Kremlin is already under.

Analysts believe that Russia is trying to thwart the U.S. sanctions that have been intervening with the completion of the country’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would take natural gas to Europe, making Russia one of the biggest energy players in the world.

The U.S.

In response to the mentioned scenarios, The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has said that the U.S. will take all necessary measures to maintain its role as the world’s top energy producer and in fact, the country is not going to step back from its “global energy dominance” strategy.

Khaqani believes that the U.S. is seeking to take Saudi Arabia’s role in the oil market becoming the new swing producer capable of regulating production levels to control oil prices.

“These attempts by state actors to manipulate and shock oil markets reinforce the importance of the role of the United States as a reliable energy supplier to partners and allies around the world. The United States, as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, can and will withstand this volatility,” the DOE said in a statement.

Final thoughts

Whatever the real reason for the rift between Saudi and Russia is, its impacts on the oil market are undeniable.

If the “war” is just between the kingdom and Russia many believe that the impacts will be short-lived and in the near future, we would witness the markets getting back to a more stable status.

The fact is that now after the break-up Saudi Arabia is going to flood the already oversupplied market with oil and eventually Russia which is not able to increase its production as much as the kingdom will have to step back.

If the second scenario is correct, however, we should expect more complications.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Oil Wars: Russia and Saudi Arabia in the forefront

Sisir Devkota

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Recent developments in Italy and the stock market have things in common. Both came as an alarming surprise; while Italian authorities took stringent measures to lock down the entire nation due to Covid-19 fears, oil prices plunged remarkably in the past week. Rather shamelessly, Russia and Saudi Arabia are exploiting the international epidemic; in order to eclipse a once in a lifetime opportunity. As Saudi Arabia and Russia fought against each other to increase production, oil prices spiraled down in years. The oil giants are looking to consolidate losses from the past. Primarily, both the nations are looking to keep American oil supply arrested, amidst the pandemic uncertainty. As OPEC nations agreed to limit production in order to maintain oil prices, Russia disagreed, prompting the kingdom to counter a bizarre monopoly. The virus has kindled new age energy wars; at the epicenter, are two nations, displaying dreadful nature of international responsibility.

History is key here. Saudi Arabia is sluggishly recovering from an oil field disaster while Russia is eyeing years of forfeited trade advantage caused by western sanctions. International effort is concentrated towards containing the virus, whereas handful of interest agencies along with both nations are seeking an unlikely triumph. A true windfall has caught Russia by surprise, a rare opportunity that will not slip from Putin’s hand. On the other hand, Saudis, rather egoistically are pursuing their godsend place in the international energy market. The scuff is undoubtedly interesting, however; consequentially, it will also determine fortunes for some and famine for others. OPEC’s decision to lower production in order to maintain current oil price is not a samaritan effort; nevertheless, it would have saved capital over-indulgence that could have instead concealed humanitarian efforts to contain the pandemic. For now, management is key and stock market health can prove to be momentous. A lively market is key to ward off unprecedented economic stress.

Russia and Saudi Arabia’s naivety has led to extreme stock market resistance. The world is watching the fight closely, waiting and hoping for the standoff to deflate. It is not the stalemate that is most worrying; unusual market activity is quietly manufacturing an enormous bubble waiting to crack. Market resistance is tipping at a dangerous degree; world markets are sincerely counting on each other for support. For instance, consider how markets would plunge lower than they otherwise would, as oil prices keep decreasing uncommonly. A sinking ship is resisting, waiting for water levels that can only drown by all rationality. Hence, the analogue.It would have taken Russia and Saudi Arabia a great deal of conscience to withdraw national interests for the sake of global welfare. Just in case the virus does not cease to pare, we are in for a truly global disaster. As more nations will testify infected population, the stock market will increasingly face nervous breakdowns. Then after, it will be impossible to guess directions.

Reduced oil prices will complement some and destroy others; the relationship is so disturbing that daily economics might just have to re-invent itself in the face of unpredictability. Imagine the aviation industry exhausting oil demands, in the face of historic low prices. Russia and Saudi Arabia understand the tradeoffs, yet national interests have blindfolded competing energy giants. In the long run, Russia and Saudi Arabia would have stored enough barrels to dictate oligopoly. Alluringly, the case does not rest there. Both the nations will also be hoping for which now looks like a miraculous recovery from the pandemic; future profits will uncharacteristically depend on a healthy market. The risk has been taken despite of all uncertainties. For a change, both Putin and Bin Salman will also be praying, nevertheless.

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