Israel to Increase Naval Protection for Oil Rigs Over Leviathan Gas Field

Article Summary
Israel is resuming exploratory drilling operations in the Leviathan natural gas field after a previous attempt to breach the surface of the sea floor ended in failure. Given Israel’s tense relations with Lebanon over its maritime borders and fears that its oil platforms may become the target of enemy attacks, the Hebrew State is also consecrating a large part of its Navy to defending these new investments, writes Helmi Moussa.

As it resumes its drilling operations in the Leviathan [offshore natural gas field], Israel has gone from sending out its rigs unattended to consecrating a significant portion of its naval force to protect drilling sites. The drilling operations in the Leviathan were suspended last April because the existing drilling rig was unable to reach the deeper depths at which the oil supposedly lies.

The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth indicated that the drilling rigs are working in an area located about 130 kilometers northwest of the city of Haifa, and that they would resume activity in the coming days. The newspaper stated that the new drilling operation will strongly impact future oil exploration in the Mediterranean. [Noble Corporation’s] Homer Ferrington gas drilling rig ended [its operations in] Block 12 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The rig [will be transferred to the Leviathan field] and take over operations at the site where drilling was suspended last April. [The suspension occurred] when the Sedco Express rig failed to breach the earth’s surface at a depth of 6,000 meters below sea level.

At that time, Israeli economic newspapers reported that drilling stopped after the rig failed to find oil at the expected depth. Noble Energy estimates that the drill site has an economic potential of almost 3 billion barrels of oil, at a probability of 17%. Noble Energy contends that finding oil at this site would  be the first proof of the presence of oil in the sub-layers of the Mediterranean. [If oil is indeed found], drilling in the Mediterranean will likely escalate and will not  be limited to finding gas.

It is worth noting that two other oil drilling operations are set to commence off of the Israeli coast but at lower strata [geological layers]. However, the expectations for these two operations are much lower, and each of them is expected to yield around 200 million barrels [of oil].

Israel has started expanding its naval force in consideration of the strategic importance that it attributes to the recently discovered offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean. Yesterday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote that the Shayetet 13 naval force has been [charged with protecting these fields]. [This naval force] includes all the Israeli missile ships and will protect the fields of Yam Tatis, Tamar, Leviathan and any other field that is discovered [in the future]. The Israeli Navy is clearly arranging for [the protection of these fields].

Haaretz reported that Israeli naval officers have stated that protecting these structures will require the consecration of thousands of sailing hours per year - representing a significant chunk of the Israeli naval force’s activity. [These actions imply that] the drilling platforms belong to [the states that control the economic area in which they operate despite the fact that they are located outside of Israel’s regional waters (22 km from the coast). Because [the platforms] are located within [Israel’s] economic waters (130 km from the coast), Israel has given itself the legal right to protect these structures.

According to Israeli naval leaders, “the [maritime] economic [area] practically increases the surface of Israel’s territory threefold; however, it also creates strategic threats. [These threats are not limited to] the drilling operations and workers, but also to the general energy [supply] to Israel. This means that damage [to these oil platforms] would truly be a nightmare.” Therefore, two missile boats have been added to the naval force and they are expected to [be completed and arrive on site] in the coming years. Every missile ship is estimated [to cost] hundreds of millions of Israeli shekels. The issue of protecting these naval platforms was raised in the Israeli debate over the reduction of the defense budget.

Israel sees these naval platforms as potential targets for attackers. An Israeli reserve officer thinks that these targets might be “an easy target” for hostile operations, especially during times of war. The platforms could come under threat of a dense missile attack (especially supersonic cruise missiles such as the Syrian-owned Yakhont missile), a planned air crash into them, or a boat-bomb.

[Given these perceived threats], the Israeli navy force has been tasked with protecting the platforms from external threats, while the responsibility of internal protection has been left to the companies [operating the oil rigs].

It is worth noting that the naval platforms currently enjoy the protection of [Israeli] aircraft, which constantly patrol the area. It is needless to say that Israel is aware of a conflict with Lebanon over its maritime borders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had stated that “the maritime borders Lebanon submitted to the United Nations [conflict with] the borders that Israel sees.”

In any case, the United Nations and the United States are at the center of secret deliberations on the issue of Israel and Lebanon’s maritime borders. It is no secret that these border issues are related to the significant gas and oil reserves that [may lie off the Levantine coast].

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