The Israeli High Court on Sunday struck down the stability clause of the government’s natural gas framework agreement, which stipulated that Israel will not make any substantial regulatory changes for the next 10 years to taxation, exports, and ownership of the fields. The ruling is certainly a major setback for the companies involved and the officials who have championed them. Formulating and formalizing a framework palatable to the industry and its opponents, which began in early 2015, has proven elusive due to Israel’s difficult political climate. While the High Court’s decision may have been inevitable, however, there may be a silver lining for Israel’s Leviathan gas field.
A 4-1 majority opposed the stability clause, stating that a guarantee “that binds the government to the outline, including no changes in legislation and opposing legislation initiatives for 10 years cannot stand.” Prime Minister Netanyahu, lambasting the result, said that “nobody has any reason to celebrate that the gas is liable to remain in the depths of the sea.” Houston-based Noble Energy, which together with Israel’s Delek owns majority shares in the Leviathan and Tamar fields, commented that the decision “represents another risk to Leviathan timing,” and reiterated that the stability clause is a prerequisite for the estimated $5 to $6 billion investment required by the consortium.
Noble and Delek have two options going forward; either they can ask Netanyahu for more sweeteners and take the framework deal without the stability clause, or they can wait for the Knesset to legislate the stability clause. Unfortunately for the deal’s proponents, both are incredibly risky. The companies had intended to make a final investment decision on Leviathan, which holds an estimated 22 trillion cubic feet of gas, before the end of 2016 and begin operations as early as the end of 2019. Waiting for legislation undoubtedly delays that timeline, given Netanyahu’s shaky Knesset coalition, and prolongs uncertainty about the rest of Israel’s gas reserves, particularly since the court’s ruling only gives the government one year to come up with an alternative solution.
Finding a way to sweeten the deal enough to persuade Noble and Delek to accept the framework as is, on the other hand, would enable the companies to move forward and make a final investment decision, but it would likely mean trouble for Netanyahu, who has spent significant political capital on getting a signed agreement. Whether bypassing government institutions to get that done would bring down his single-seat majority is a big question mark, but the NGOs who petitioned the court to review the framework have so far proven influential in dictating the course of events. If Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog are serious about contesting Netanyahu’s premiership, they would have no choice but to back these groups up in the Knesset and support the integrity of government institutions. Herzog’s Labor Party, after all, commended the decision as “correct and courageous.”
The good news for Netanyahu and the companies is that the High Court upheld the Prime Minister’s implementation of Article 52 of the Restrictive Trade Practices Law in December 2015 to facilitate the framework’s signing. After refusing to invoke the law in the name of national security and foreign policy interests, former economy minister Aryeh Deri ceded his position to Netanyahu, who conducted numerous consultations with the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee before signing the framework deal. The court’s support for that part of the gas agreement means Noble and Delek may continue to work towards finalizing multi-billion preliminary export deals with customers in Egypt and Jordan.
That does not mean those negotiations will produce concrete sales and purchase agreements, which the Leviathan consortium needs in order to obtain financing. Both Egypt and Jordan are turning to liquefied natural gas imports from Qatar, Russia, and other gas-producing countries to meet demand. The European Union, which has also expressed interest in East Mediterranean gas, has already begun importing ethane from the U.S., which is also expected to supply LNG cargoes to the continent even as Russia maintains its dominant market position. Any potential pipeline exports to Turkey, meanwhile, require a resolution to the Cyprus conflict.
With no contracts yet in hand, Leviathan may still have its moment for opportunity. That moment, however, may not come until the next decade. With natural gas prices as low as they are given both the oil price downturn and the global gas glut, now is not an optimal time for making a final decision about a project that requires long-term agreements. Once oversupply clears and prices have recovered—which is not expected to happen until around 2020—that contract structure will become viable again in some form. In addition, the Middle East is expected to drive natural gas growth demand over the next 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency, meaning regional customers could still be within reach.
Noble and Delek may not want to wait to develop Leviathan, but the High Court’s decision means the companies must seriously consider waiting until market conditions can foster more profitable results for exports, with or without a stability clause. It is not what the industry and its proponents had originally envisioned, but neither was the regulatory maneuvering and political opposition that has occurred since Leviathan was discovered in 2010. Extracting Israel’s remaining offshore gas reserves is not out of reach, but it will require adjusting to political and economic realities.
Allison Good is a reporter based in Washington, DC. She has worked in strategic communications consulting for the oil and gas sector and previously interned at Noble Energy. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of current or former employers.