Israel Quietly Searching For Oil in Golan Heights

Article Summary
Israel has secretly decided to renew exploratory drilling permits in the Golan Heights. In the 90's, Israel decided to avoid such explorations for political reasons. Such a step could provoke a anegative Syrian response and influence future negotiations with Syria, writes Amir Ben David, especially if oil fields are found in the difficult-to-survey area.

Some 20 years after it was decided, for political reasons, not to carry out any exploratory drilling for oil or gas in the Golan Heights, Israeli Minister of Energy and Water Resources Uzi Landau has decided to once again grant permits for such drilling, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

After extending the Israeli Law to the Golan Heights about 30 years ago [in 1981], it was ruled that under the Israeli Petroleum Law — the law that governs the exploration and production of gas and oil in Israel — exploratory drills for the highly valued resource could be carried out in the region. In those years, the rights for exploratory oil drilling were held by a governmental company, the Israel Oil Company, and in the early 1990's, the Israeli Energy Ministry granted it a permit for exploratory drillings in the Golan Heights. However, following the overtures for peace negotiations between Israel and Syria made under the Rabin government, the permit was suspended. In 1996, under the first Netanyahu government, rumors circulated of Israel's intention to renew drilling in the Golan Heights. The Syrians rushed to denounce the move. The Israeli government denied any such intentions and the drilling never went forward.

Under the Petroleum Law, the minister in charge is authorized, in consultation with the advisory Petroleum Commission, to open or close certain regions for exploratory drilling. An agreement to this effect was reached with former Knesset Member Ron Nachman (Likud), who currently heads the Petroleum Commission. A few weeks ago, Minister of Energy and Water Resources Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu) decided to reopen the Golan Heights for exploratory oil drilling. His decision — exposed in this report for the first time — was secretly approved. The decision is liable to have far-reaching political repercussions, and sources close to Minister Uzi Landau are not denying that his political views played a role in his decision. Those same sources added on Sunday, May 13, that “his view, that the State of Israel must exploit all options for exploratory oil drilling throughout the country in order to cut loose from dependence on Arab oil, is well known.”

Past experience shows that the decision to renew the drilling in the Golan Heights is likely to provoke protest on the part of Syria and negatively impact any potential future negotiations with Israel.

Are there any oil or gas reserves in the Golan Heights?

Since the area is covered with basalt rocks, it is difficult — though not impossible — to carry out geological surveys there. If exploratory drilling is actually performed in the region and oil or gas reserves are found, it will most probably spark an international outcry and trigger a dispute between the countries in the region over the rights to the oil or gas fields discovered.

At the same time, Landau has decided to "close" the territorial waters of Israel to new exploratory oil and gas drilling and to reject any further requests for permits for such drilling. It has been argued, in justification of the decision, that the exploratory drilling already approved and scheduled for implementation over the next few years will enable the collection of data regarding the gas and oil potential in the region, on the basis of which future permits may be granted.

Landau's close associates further said that "the Minister has adopted the recommendation to close the territorial waters of Israel [to new exploratory oil and gas drilling] with the view of enabling the market to stabilize and assimilate the regulatory rules formulated in the past years."

Found in: syria, oil drilling, oil, israel, golan heights

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