The gas chief with a whole lot of energy

Israel could soon become a major player in gas exporting. We talk to Delek’s Gideon Tadmor, one of the experts helping to make it happen.

By Simon Griver, November 4, 2010
Gideon Tadmor, chief executive of Delek Energy, has spent two decades searching for untapped energy resources

Gideon Tadmor, chief executive of Delek Energy, has spent two decades searching for untapped energy resources

The news that Israel's Delek Group, controlled by Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva, is reportedly considering raising around £200 million on the London Stock Exchange in January will focus attention on one of Israel's largest corporations. Delek's holdings include a global property portfolio, hundreds of petrol stations in the US, Europe and Israel, and the Phoenix Israel Assurance company, but it will be Delek's achievements in discovering vast gas reserves off Israel's shores that whets the investor's appetite.

Delek needs capital to develop these gas fields, which will make Israel a major energy exporter.

Gideon Tadmor, the chief executive officer of Delek Energy, is responsible, alongside Mr Tshuva, for Israel's new energy reality.

Speaking in his Herzliyah office, Mr Tadmor, 46, recalls the years of frustration when, as head of Avner Oil and Gas Exploration, he knew that there were untapped energy resources beneath Israel's waters but was unable to get to them.

He teamed up with Mr Tshuva as part of a consortium searching for gas at the Noa and Mary gas fields in the 1990s. "All geological surveys indicated that the Levant basin in the Mediterranean was rich in gas. Yitzhak Tshuva and I were unable to find a major energy exploration company with the know-how and experience to find the gas. We went to company after company with our seismic surveys and were rejected by everybody. Even in an era when we had peace with the Palestinians, the Arab boycott was strong, and exploration companies did not dare endanger their activities."

Israel is set to export gas to Europe and Asia markets

One US Geological Survey report has estimated there could be up to 227 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Mediterranean's Levant Basin - much of it belonging to Israel. Pretty significant considering a recent BP survey estimated that the UK's natural gas reserves in the North Sea totaled 12 trillion cubic feet.

Then in 1998 Mr Tadmor and Mr Tshuva struck oil, so to speak. During a trip to the US they met Charles Davidson, CEO of Noble Energy, a small but successful exploration team operating in Oklahoma, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr Tadmor says: "Noble were looking to expand into international operations and had no Arab activities to jeopardise. They looked at our surveys, liked what they saw and thought it was worth the risk, so they said: 'Let's do it'."

The gamble paid off big time for Noble Energy, which has been party to all Israel's proven gas finds since. Today, it has worldwide operations and a market value of $13.5 billion (£8.5bn). Delek owns nearly 3 per cent of Noble and plans raising its stake to 4 per cent.

In 1999 and 2000 Noble, working with its partners - Mr Tadmor's Avner and Mr Tshuva's Delek Drilling - discovered the Mary and Noa gas fields off the coast of Ashkelon containing 1.1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Mr Tadmor says: "This was the big bang. The significance of these first finds was that they established the infrastructure for a natural gas industry in Israel."

Israel Electric Corporation began converting its coal-fuelled power stations into natural gas-fuelled and in 2004 the gas fields came on stream - the point after drilling and the setting up of pipelines that the gas finally starts flowing commercially. Today, close to half of Israel's electricity is produced from natural gas, which includes gas bought from Egypt.

Mr Tadmor and Mr Tshuva formally joined forces in 2001 when Avner became part of Delek Group and Delek Energy was formed.

"Israel's gas industry entered its second phase on 9 January 2009 when we made the largest discovery of natural gas anywhere in the world. This ensured Israel can be self sufficient in gas." The Tamar field in the northeast of Haifa and the nearby smaller Dalit field contain over nine trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to last Israel 50 years at its current consumption rate. Those fields will already be on stream by the end of 2012.

Delek and Avner own over 30 per cent of the field with Noble Energy and two other Israeli companies, Isramco and Dor Gas. Even those discoveries were dwarfed by the Leviathan field offshore from Hadera. The 3D seismic survey published in the summer indicated the field could contain 16 trillion cubic feet, although in a recent interview Noble Energy cited 24 trillion cubic feet. Delek and Avner own 45 per cent of this field alongside Noble and Israeli company Ratio.

Mr Tadmor is taking a more cautious approach. "A new drilling rig arrived from the US in early October and we have begun drilling and we will all be wiser in the next few months. 3D surveys indicated there is a 50 per cent chance of the reserves being as much 16 trillion cubic feet and a 17 per cent chance of finding large quantities of oil."

He says: "We are approaching the third phase where Israel is set to become an exporter to European and Asian markets for our gas. We can also expect to find more gas in nearby fields." 3D seismic surveys in the Sara and Myra fields off Netanya in which Delek does not have a stake have indicated reserves of 5.7 trillion cubic feet, while the Palestinians own a field off Gaza discovered by British Gas.

There is a row raging in Israel over the royalties that the gas exploration companies must pay for the resources, currently pegged at 12.5 per cent. Social activists want heavyweights such as Mr Tadmor to pay more. "It is certainly not smart or moral to change the royalties retroactively. What worries me is that despite the vast amounts of gas we are finding we still have had no interest from any of the major international companies. We cannot afford to take anything for granted."

Last updated: 8:59am, November 5 2010