Does Israel walk a thin line with West Bank oil drill?

Meged-5 oil field It is not known how much commercially viable oil lies under Israel and the West Bank, but the Palestinian Authority has shown little interest in laying claim to it

While the search for oil beneath Israel has been going on for years, the most recently drilled well in the Meged oil field, on the edge of the West Bank, is raising concern that it might draw from untapped Palestinian reserves.

After a 10-minute uphill hike through the rocky fields of the West Bank village of Rantis, we reach a summit where we rest, panting in the 40-degree heat.

A hundred metres (330ft) in front of us lie the wired fence and gravel track of the Green Line - the perimeter of the West Bank and Israel.

To our left lies Ben Gurion airport; beyond that, Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. But it is for a different view that we have come here.

"It hasn't been on for the last few days," says Bilal, a Rantis local and student at Bir Zeit University.

"And you can't see too much in the daytime anyway. But at night - boof!" He gestures as though throwing a fistful of confetti into the air.

Start Quote

Looking at the site of the flare, and the shape of the overall field, it's clear that this extends into the West Bank”

End Quote Samer Naboulsi Petroleum engineer

He is referring to the large black pipe inserted vertically into the earth, not more than 500 metres away, out of which a steady, blazing flame has been periodically sighted for about a year now.

It is in fact a gas flare, part of the Meged-5 oil well, owned and operated by Givot Olam Oil Ltd, currently the sole player in Israel's tiny onshore oil and gas production sector.

"I happened to be driving past when all of a sudden I saw this huge flare on the Green Line," recalls Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian al-Hayat al-Jadeedah, who first broke the story in Ramallah.

"I was sure it must be gas. So I called the mayor of Rantis and he said, 'Yes, the Israelis are drilling oil and gas.'"

'No man's land'

While this may seem uncontroversial on the face of it- the flare is, after all, within Israel proper - its proximity to the Green Line raises ethical questions.

Map

"Geology doesn't follow geography," explains Dr Samer Naboulsi, a veteran petroleum engineer at a leading oil firm in Dubai.

"Looking at the site of the flare, and the shape of the overall field, it's clear that this extends into the West Bank. And even when extracting from the Israeli side, it'll be draining Palestinian reserves.

"This is why the international convention is to establish a 'no man's land' - typically many kilometres wide - along national borders in which neither party may extract without the other's consent."

Dr Walid Khadduri, a former director at the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) and editor-in-chief of the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), also criticises Israel's unilateral approach.

"Ordinarily in such a situation, both parties would reach a mutual agreement to divide the field and the associated revenues and costs in an equitable manner.

"This was the case between the UK and Norway, for example. Without such an agreement, things can get messy - look at Iraq and Kuwait," he says, referring to Iraq's 1990 invasion of its southern neighbour following a dispute over the transnational Rumaila field.

Moreover, the drilling would seem to contravene the Oslo Accords, which call for "co-operation in the field of energy, including an energy development programme, which will provide for the exploitation of oil and gas [and] will encourage further joint exploration of other energy resources".

Green Line dividing Israel and the West Bank The oil field's proximity to the Green Line dividing Israel (right of the path) and the West Bank has raised concerns

Givot Olam refused to comment, but an Israeli government official dismissed the claims as "yet another attempt to politicise everything".

"We are engaging in exploratory digging within Israel. While we are hopeful, there is at present no conclusive indication as to whether commercially viable quantities will be found, or precisely where," the unnamed official told the BBC.

"The commercial implications, including over the Green Line, are unknown. It is surprising that a Petroleum Engineer in Dubai already knows more than the people on the ground at this early stage."

'Highly profitable'

The Palestinian Authority (PA) meanwhile has shown little interest in pursuing what is potentially a substantial strategic and economic opportunity for the West Bank.

Start Quote

Historically, there has never been a Palestinian oil industry. This is all very new”

End Quote Walid Khadduri Ex-OAPEC director

A technical report issued by the UK-based consultant Greensand Associates in 2010 concluded that "the Meged Core Area has robust economics... and could be a highly profitable venture if the predicted well production volumes prove to be achievable and sustainable."

The reserves of the Meged-5 well alone have been estimated by Givot Olam at over 1.5bn barrels - not a huge find but certainly enough to make a difference for the chronically energy-poor West Bankers (the UK, by comparison, has around 3bn barrels of proven reserves). The company says it extracted 800 barrels a day during a test period last year.

Yet there appears to be neither the will nor the ability on the Palestinian side to take action.

"I met [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas shortly after discovering the flare and told him about it," says Mr Barghouti. "He shrugged. He wasn't interested at all."

A report in the Chinese state media, however, quoted PA official Abdullah Abdullah as condemning the drilling, saying the organisation "will not stay cross-handed. We will take urgent procedures that may include suing Israel in international courts."

Even so, Mr Khadduri points out the considerable practical obstacles to an effective Palestinian initiative. "An obvious problem is that they simply don't have the expertise.

"Historically, there has never been a Palestinian oil industry. This is all very new."

And there is also the more fundamental question of whether Israel would recognise the Palestinians' right to any part of the field in the first place.

"They regard that entire section of the West Bank as Israeli territory," says Mr Barghouti. "Including Rantis. They refer to it as the 'Kfar Sava area'."

Mr Khadduri also says Israel has repeatedly derailed Palestinian efforts to extract gas from the sizeable fields off the coast of Gaza.

All of which suggests that a rare opportunity for mutually beneficial Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is likely to be missed.

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