The seabed of the Mediterranean covers a lot of natural gas. This has been clear since, at latest, the 1980s. But repeated discoveries in the second decade of the 21st century have dramatically confirmed the point. And as productivity falls in such mature drilling regions as the North Sea, there is a push on to find “unproven plays.” The deep waters of the south Atlantic have been one such play. East Africa has been another. For today’s column, though, we will look at yet another. We’ll examine the geology of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, the chronology by which they have been discovered, and (a little) the engineering issue of how this gas will make its way to western European markets.
In 1992, the International Egyptian Oil Company (IEOC) acquired the Temsah concession, a field in Egyptian waters offshore the Nile delta. Soon thereafter it found natural gas in the El Temsah field in the Nile delta, in what was deemed Middle Miocene sediment.
The Miocene (the period in the earth’s history from about 23 million to about 5.3 million years ago) was a time of cooling over much of the globe, the transition from the warmer Oligocene epoch to the great glaciations of the Pliocene. In the middle of this long epoch, the Mediterranean nearly disappeared; first cut off from the Atlantic and then desiccated. But after about half a million years of a mostly dry seabed, the Strait of Gibraltar (re-)opened and the Atlantic waters flooded in. The sedimentation of the seabed reflects the geological trauma of the loss of a sea and then its return.
Thus, talk of Miocene sediment is invariably linked with discussions of natural gas strikes. That trauma created the geological formations that have worked to trap natural gas.
An Egyptian oil geologist, Mahmoud Rashed, has said that the great Zohr discovery of 2015 was a tip-off of things to come; it was in an “early to middle Miocene structure,” limestone “in a carbonate reef and lagoon build-up at the southern margin of a very large carbonate platform.”
The odds are good, Rashed believes, that given these geological structures there is more yet to be found in the area, enough “to rewrite the play book for the development of the gas industry in the whole eastern Mediterranean region.”
In January 2009, Noble Energy discovered gas in the Tamar fields, in Israeli waters, 90 kilometers west of Haifa. The reserves of the field were soon estimated at 3.1 trillion cubic feet (tcf). Later revisions of that early estimate reached 10 tcf.
The Tamar field now accounts for 60% of Israel’s power generation.
In the early days after discovery, one cloud over the exploitation of its field was a claim by Lebanon that some of the waters involved were its own, not Israel’s. But by 2010 that cloud had lifted; Lebanon dropped its claim.
In 2010, too, the US Geological Survey estimated that the whole of the “Levant basin” could contain 122 tcf of natural gas in total.
Near year’s end, Noble Energy discovered an even larger field. To the southwest of Tamar 29 km lies the aptly named Leviathan gas field. This may contain 22 tcf of recoverable natural gas. The first gas deliveries from this source are expected to hit world markets by the end of 2019.
In 2011, Noble (again) began drilling at the Aphrodite field, southeast of Cyprus. In December it confirmed that there is natural gas there. Noble is still working on a final field development plan. Tentatively, it wants five initial production wells and expects a combined output from them of up to 800 million cubic feet per day.
2012, Egypt put up for tender 15 exploration zones.
2015, Eni made its Zohr find, in block 9 of the area mapped out by Egypt. This is thought to have 30 TCF of potential gas reserves, which makes it substantially larger than Leviathan. It is the Zohr specifically that inspired the geological observations of Mr. Rashed, quoted above, to the effect that the world may be seeing still only the early stages of such discoveries.
In August 2016, Amos Hochstein, energy affairs envoy for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, tells Bloomberg much the same, that exploration of the region is “just beginning to open the spigot of what is the potential for the broader region.”
Four months later, Egypt signed three exploration deals: one with a subsidiary of Eni, one with Total, one with BP.
This last October, Lebanon got into the gas rush (or back into it) tendering exploration rights.
February 2018, the Energy Minister of Cyprus announced that Eni and Total between them had discovered an extensive strain of natural gas southwest of Cyprus. The geology, said the announcement, is similar to that of the Zohr field. The new discovery has received the name Calypso 1.
All this raises the question: what’s the best way to get the natural gas out of the ocean, and headed on its way to the rest of the world, especially to Europe, (which is very thirsty these days, especially for the liquified stuff)?
In December, the governments of four nations (Italy, Greece, Israel and Cyprus) agreed to support the creation of a new pipeline for this purpose, a pipeline that would stretch from the Tamar fields to Italy. The submarine project, known simply as the East Med for the Tamar-to-Greece distance, and as the Poseidon for the final leg to Italy, would be 2,000 kilometers long (1,242 miles).
The envisioned pipeline would have the capacity to carry 16 bcm of gas per year.
IGI Poseidon SA, the corporate entity behind the project, is a joint venture of Edison (an Italian energy group) and DEPA SA (a Greek natural gas firm.)
Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, has said that this is a “very ambitious project.” That may be an understatement. It would entail the longest subsea pipeline on the planet.