Israel economy minister resigns to allow major gas deal: PM

AFP , Sunday 1 Nov 2015

Gas field

Israel's economy minister resigned on Sunday, opening the way for the government to greenlight a multibillion dollar gas deal with US energy giant Noble Energy, a statement from the Prime Minister's office said.

"Minister (Aryeh) Deri announced to me his intention to quit. In order to proceed with the (offshore gas) agreement the ministry will be transferred to me and I will give the greenlight," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

A major deal to exploit offshore gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has been stuck for almost a year due to the objection of the country's anti-trust authority, which warned the agreement could give Noble and its Israeli partner Delek an effective monopoly.

It was also held up by Deri's refusal to overrule the authority.

Netanyahu, who is already acting foreign minister, will now assume control over the economy ministry and press ahead with the deal.

"We are making today a big step towards advancing delivery to the state of Israel. Gas is the number one engine for economic growth in Israel for the coming years," Netanyahu said.

Israel has been trying to extract and develop offshore gas since the discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan fields in 2009 and 2010. While extraction has begun in Tamar, the far larger Leviathan has been hit by a series of bureaucratic delays.

For resource poor Israel, the aim is to use the gas to become more economically independent, lower energy prices and potentially export its gas.

But Netanyahu has come under criticism from opposition politicians, with many accusing the government of agreeing a bad deal for the country.

Neighbouring Egypt recently discovered what was described as the "largest ever" gas field in the Mediterranean, sparking fears in Israel that the country could fall behind.

Noble Energy had previously threatened legal action against the government for the delay.

Mona Sukkarieh, analyst at the Middle East Strategic Perspectives risk consultancy which focuses on Mediterranean oil and gas, said Sunday's announcement was "significant."

She said that Deri had been hesitant to become the first Israeli minister to overrule the anti-trust authority.

"Deri's resignation and the transfer of his authority to the Prime Minister could move the gas plan forward and avoid a legal battle with Noble Energy."

The size of the Leviathan field is estimated at 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic metres, or bcm) of natural gas, along with 34.1 million barrels of condensate.

Noble and Delek also control the Tamar field, which holds 250 bcm of natural gas, and lies 80 kilometres (40 nautical miles) west of the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.

Deri's resignation has raised concerns that Netanyahu is seeking to avoid democratic checks and balances.

Lior Rotem, a spokesman for the Israeli parliament's energy committee, said they would seek to establish whether the proper democratic process had been followed.

"We have to make a hearing with the minister who has the authority and only after that will the committee establish its opinion," he told AFP.

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