The Middle East Channel

Defending Israel’s Natural Gas

As offshore natural gas production snowballs in Israel and private companies begin to announce plans for exports, it has become all too clear that the country lacks the kind of comprehensive energy policy that a resource-rich state needs. Between the government's inability to allocate specific and sufficient funds for defending natural gas installations, minimal environmental regulation, lack of infrastructure, and new threats like cyber warfare and the accumulation of advanced weapons systems by non-state actors, Israel is unprepared to face the challenges associated with protecting its gas reserves. Some steps have been taken recently toward crafting a plan, but the technological, financial, and strategic aspects of what should be a national energy security policy still have a long way to go.

While rig owners have private armed security forces on each platform, the ultimate responsibility to protect these installations lies with the Israeli navy, since the country's coastline is not long enough to merit a separate coast guard. Navy patrol boat vessels currently patrol in the vicinity of this infrastructure -- about 12 miles from Ashdod -- but the military only has 13 fast attack ships. The Super Dvora-class Mark III and Shaldag Mark III patrol craft designated for this purpose, in addition to recently acquired Dolphin submarines from Germany, cannot on their own protect Israel's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is almost twice the size of the country itself.

The typically underfunded navy recognizes this reality, but while Israel's defense budget is expected to increase in 2014 following a spat with the parliamentary finance committee, no specific amount has been allocated for defending natural gas platforms. On one hand, the ministry of defense and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) contend that more than $860 million is needed in the form of a one-time budget allocation plus annual operations costs for large patrol vessels, extended surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The ministry of finance, on the other hand, claims that threats are overestimated and defending installations would only cost about $200 million. Meanwhile, the state's national security council, which has conducted its own preliminary report, recommends spending about $775 million. There is certainly a government-wide understanding that protecting offshore gas fields and installations is a national security issue that requires funding, but it seems there is little impetus for expediting an actual decision.

Such a large sum of money is needed in part because the Israeli navy's equipment is in dire need of upgrades to counteract new types of threats such as cyber attacks, guided missiles, and UAVs. The navy worked with Israeli defense companies on a new long-range air defense system to be installed on missile ships, and improved coastal electronic sensors as well in 2013. In December, Israel signed a deal to buy two German-built MEKO class F221 frigates to patrol offshore gas fields for $1.37 billion. Still, IDF officials admit that they cannot adequately secure the infrastructure at sea with their current resources. They worry that the installations are still a "sitting duck" for terrorists, and a recent report that Hezbollah is smuggling advanced guided-missile systems into Lebanon from Syria indicates that the potential for non-state actors to acquire the best non-conventional technology is a reality.

Israel's lack of domestic natural gas infrastructure is a third impediment to energy security. Until the Leviathan field comes online, Israel's gas market will be based solely on the Tamar field, which began production in March, 2013. There is only one production treatment platform, located about 12 miles from Ashkelon and 12 miles from Gaza, which has only one terminal, in Ashdod, and there is only one pipeline to deliver the gas to the Mediterranean coast for local consumption. There is consensus among the Israeli policy community that it is only a matter of time until an attack of accident leaves Israel sitting in the dark or relying on alternative expensive sources of fuel. Given that natural gas is expected to account for the majority of Israel's energy supply, diversifying entry points to the shore and constructing additional refineries and treatment sites is essential to security.

Environmental protection and regulation is yet another missing component of a comprehensive energy security policy. Israel's supervisory laws, which provide for oversight on industrial activity, apply to the country's territorial waters but not to its EEZ, where most hydrocarbon drilling is done. This means that no one -- including exploration and production companies -- can "legally be accountable for damages that ensue there." Nor does the planning committee have jurisdiction over the EEZ, which gives gas companies free reign to operate without being required to perform due diligence, such as environmental-impact studies of drilling plans and safer alternatives. New guidelines have been proposed, but that legislation is not expected to pass in the immediate future, and it does not satisfy environmental groups, which lambaste loopholes in the text that could result in a disaster.

Even though a comprehensive energy security policy is nonexistent, Israel has made some progress in asserting and enunciating a strategy. Natural gas platform defense is now unified under the navy, which is considered to be the only entity capable of protecting the EEZ. Rigs will still have private security forces, but they will always have to coordinate with the IDF. The government also changed the law forbidding the protection of infrastructure outside Israeli territorial waters, enabling the navy to extend its jurisdiction to the EEZ.

Despite the success of these important initiatives, the bigger picture remains a cause for concern. Any energy security policy advanced by Israel must be a comprehensive, concerted, and cohesive effort that mitigates any and every possible threat. Until this strategic necessity becomes a top priority for Israel's policymakers, the country will be subject to enormous risk.

Allison Good is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @Allison_Good1.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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