* 19 new wells to be drilled in next two years
* A serious spill could cripple Israel's coastal economy
* Environmental groups call for stricter regulation
By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Israeli officials said they recognise the need to protect the unique and fragile marine environment of the Levant basin in order to ensure the success of the oil and gas industry there.
The promise of natural gas wealth is enticing an increasing number exploration companies to the eastern Mediterranean, where huge deposits were recently discovered and whose marine ecosystem, Israel's influential environmental groups say, is now potentially under threat.
Nearly half the Levant basin -- which holds an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable natural gas - is in Israeli economic waters. The rest lies off of Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria.
"Protecting the environment and security is necessary for the exploration industry to succeed. If, heaven forbid, a catastrophe or severe damage happens, it will most likely freeze or paralyze the industry for many years," Energy Minister Uzi Landau told Reuters.
One of the biggest challenges in the Levant basin is the depth of the wells. The largest fields so far discovered are deeper than the site of the disastrous Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, where rescue efforts were hindered so far beneath the water's surface.
As a result, Israel is focussed on preventing any environmental disasters.
Israel was caught by surprise when two of the past decade's largest deep sea gas fields were discovered off its coast and it has been trying to maintain order in the exploration frenzy that ensued.
Nineteen new wells are expected to be drilled in the next two years at a cost of about $2 billion in a drilling area larger than the country itself. The companies hope to find oil in the layers beneath the gas deposits, as well.
U.S-Israeli consortiums led by Noble Energy and Delek Energy were responsible for the discoveries at Leviathan, with estimated reserves of 17 tcf, and Tamar, which holds about 9 tcf of natural gas. ILD Energy recently started drilling at the Sara field nearby.
DEEP SEA PERIL
Shortly after the colossal Leviathan gas field was discovered in 2010, 80 miles (130 kilometers) off Israel's coast, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that concerns for irreversible environmental damage were being ignored.
"The deep-sea floor in the Levant is teeming with life of a very special and unique kind," said Sergi Tudela, the head of fisheries at WWF Mediterranean.
Tudela called for comprehensive environmental assessments to determine how the drilling will affect the deep-sea ecosystems.
Landau's office is ultimately responsible for shaping the country's nascent exploration industry, and he is conscious of the perils of deep-sea drilling.
"The dilemma is not a simple one," Landau said. "We are learning how to find the middle ground -- how to develop while preserving environmental values."
Caution is crucial, he said, and there is still much to be learned.
Indeed, there has already been indications that these projects may be technically challenging.
In May, Noble had to suspend drilling at one of its wells at the Leviathan field where it hoped to find oil due to technical problems. At 21,400 feet, the deepest known penetration in the Levant basin, they were forced to stop because of high well pressure and the mechanical limits of the wellbore design.
In Israel, environmental protection groups have notable sway and have managed to hold up the construction of new reception stations along the coast, leaving the country in the precarious position of having just one gas pipeline coming ashore.
They are also petitioning a government panel, which is setting long-term policy for the natural gas sector, to hold firms to higher standards and to make sure market conditions are not overly attractive, saying it would encourage risky behavior.
The committee's final recommendations are due in the coming weeks. No delays in exploration or production are expected, officials say, and one or two new gas receiving facilities will likely be built on the Israeli coast in the coming years.
But concerns over environmental damage could complicate preparations required by companies.
Last month a team of experts from the U.S. Department of Interior came to Israel to share tips on how to best proceed and lessons from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"We in Israel, it needs to be said, don't have the ability to deal with events of that magnitude," Rani Amir of the Marine and Coastal Environment Division at Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection said after meeting the U.S. experts.
In the meantime, regulators are focusing on prevention.
Landau said his Energy Ministry has already been stepping up demands from drilling companies, drafting new provisions on monitoring and emergency response plans, insurance requirements and performance guarantees.
Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Environmental Protection, warned that Israel's short and crowded coast along the Mediterranean -- a closed body of water -- is relatively more susceptible to pollution and spills than many countries.
"With deep-sea drilling, in water deeper than a kilometer and a half and drilling more than four kilometers, it's clear that with all the good will and professionalism ... accidents happen," he said at a recent conference.
"(An environmental disaster here) can damage neighboring countries. It can even damage our relations with our neighbors," he said. "And that is without mentioning the economic collapse or damage to strategic facilities."
Niger Delta ExxonMobil Spill, Nigeria - May 2010
In Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on May 1 and spilled over a million gallons of oil, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Guardian</em></a>. The leak continued for seven days before it was stopped. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omoyele-sowore/the-oil-spill-no-ones-tal_b_649220.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger Omoyele Sowore explained</a> in July 2010 that an oil spill from ExxonMobil operations was nothing new to the country. He wrote that an "environmental catastrophe [had] been going on since December 2009." He described the toll on Nigeria: "There's oil on the surface of the ocean, wildlife coated in crude, fishermen losing their businesses."
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill - May 2010
In May 2010, several thousand barrels of oil spilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline "during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/26/alaska-oil-spill-trans-al_n_589974.html" target="_hplink">explained AP</a>. No injuries were reported and officials said the spill was likely "limited to the gravel on top of the containment area's line."
Red Butte Creek Spill, Utah - June 2010
In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into a creek near Salt Lake City, Utah. It was first estimated that over 400 to 500 barrels spilled into the creek, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/12/utah-oil-spill-500-gallon_n_610232.html#s99698" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Around 150 birds were "identified for rehabilitation." The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/14/utah-oil-spill-officials-_n_611014.html" target="_hplink">oil did not reach the Great Salt Lake</a>, however. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/chevron-cited-for-oil-spi_n_646340.html" target="_hplink">Chevron was later cited for the spill</a>, which released an estimated 33,000 gallons in total. In March 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120324/us-oil-spill-utah/" target="_hplink">a group of 66 residents of a Salt Lake City neighborhood sued Chevron</a> for damage caused by the Red Butte Creek spill and a smaller spill in December 2011.
Kalamazoo River Spill, Michigan - July 2010
In late July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan sprung a leak and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/27/michigan-oil-spill-among_n_661196.html" target="_hplink">spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek</a> which flows into the Kalamazoo River. By August, a regional EPA administrator said that significant progress had been made at the site, but "the agency cautioned that it will take months to complete the cleanup," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/michigan-oil-spill-epa-of_n_667556.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. By the end of September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/michigan-oil-pipeline-res_n_741233.html" target="_hplink">the pipeline -- which travels from Ontario to Indiana -- was back in operation</a>. The EPA later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111116/us-michigan-river-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reported that about 1.1 million gallons of oil were recovered</a>, but pipeline operator Enbridge said that it would stick with previous estimates that only about 843,000 gallons were spilled.
Xingag Harbor Spill, Dailan, China - July 2010
In July 2010, China experienced what was reported as the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/21/china-oil-spill-grows-off_n_653852.html#s120708" target="_hplink">country's largest reported oil spill</a>" after a pipeline rupture near the northeastern port city of Dailan. Several days after the spill, cleanup efforts were underway over a 165 square mile (430 square kilometer) area of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese government reported that about 1,500 tons or 461,790 gallons of oil had spilled, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/30/china-oil-spill-far-bigge_n_665038.html#s120708" target="_hplink">experts contended that the spill could have been "dozens of times larger,"</a> reported AP.
Peace River Spill, Alberta, Canada - April 2011
In late April 2011, a pipeline in northwestern Alberta began leaking, and created the worst spill in the province in 36 years, <a href="http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Rainbow+pipeline+leak+largest+years/4720888/story.html" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Calgary Herald</em></a>. About 28,000 barrels of oil were reportedly spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, which is operated by Plains Midstream Canada. The <em>Globe and Mail</em> revealed that the pipeline operators "<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-on-rainbow-line-halted-8-hours-after-problem-detected/article2013335/" target="_hplink">detected a potential problem nearly eight hours before halting the flow of crude</a>." A nearby school in a First Nation community was closed after residents reported "nausea, burning eyes and other symptoms," and several animals were found dead. In late July, Plains Midstream <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/28/alberta-pipeline-owner-as_n_912796.html" target="_hplink">requested to re-open the pipeline</a> and begin to ship oil to Edmonton again.
Bohai Bay Spill, China - June 2011
In June 2011, an oil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/01/china-offshore-oil-spills-bohai-bay_n_888473.html" target="_hplink">spill occurred about 25 miles off the coast of China's Shandong province</a> in Bohai Bay. A second spill followed in July. In late August, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/new-seeps-in-china-spill_n_937809.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ConocoPhillips had discovered more oil seeps in Bohai Bay, although only "1 to 2 liters (a quarter to a half-gallon) of oil and drilling mud were being released each day." The company reported that the 2011 spills released 700 barrels of oil and 2,500 barrels of drilling mud into the bay and that most of it was recovered. In September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/05/china-oil-spill-conocophillips_n_949745.html" target="_hplink">China's State Oceanic Administration claimed that oil was still seeping</a> underwater. In early 2012, Texas-based ConocoPhillips <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120124/as-china-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reached a settlement deal with the Chinese government</a> for $160 million.
Yellowstone River Spill, Montana - July 2011
In July 2011, a pipeline beneath Montana's Yellowstone River ruptured and sent an oil plume 25 miles downstream, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/02/yellowstone-oil-spill-pro_n_889363.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Despite reassurances from ExxonMobil that the pipeline was safe, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/yellowstone-river-oil-spill-exxon-mobil_n_891246.html" target="_hplink">the July spill released what was originally estimated to be 42,000 gallons of oil</a>. With other 1,000 workers assisting the cleanup, ExxonMobil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/04/yellowstone-river-cleanup-costs_n_1077106.html" target="_hplink">estimated that it would cost $135 million to clean the river</a>. In January 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/exxon-yellowstone-oil-spill_n_1216830.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ExxonMobil had increased its estimate of the spill size by 500 barrels. AP later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/yellowstone-river-spill-response-plan_n_1408328.html" target="_hplink">reported the estimated spill size as 63,000 gallons</a>. <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> A previous version of this slide stated the estimated spill size as 63,000 barrels instead of gallons.</em>
North Sea Spill, United Kingdom - Aug. 2011
In August 2011, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/15/north-sea-spill-uk-oil-spill_n_927078.html" target="_hplink">an oil rig off the eastern coast of Scotland began leaking</a> oil into the North Sea. Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the Gannet Alpha oil rig, initially reported that 54,600 gallons of oil were spilled. A second leak soon occurred, turning the spill into the worst in the North Sea in a decade, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/north-sea-oil-spill-shell_n_927941.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Several days later, Shell announced that it had "closed a valve from which oil was spilling into the North Sea," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/shell-says-it-has-closed-_n_931379.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. The spill released about 1,300 barrels of oil, which spread out over a 2.5 square mile (6.7 square kilometer) area.
Campos Basin Spill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Nov. 2011
In mid-November 2011, Brazilian authorities began investigating an offshore spill near Rio de Janeiro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/chevron-oil-spill-brazil_n_1100062.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Chevron initially reported that between 400 and 650 barrels of oil had spilled into the Atlantic, while a nonprofit environmental group using satellite imagery estimated that the spill rate was at least 3,738 barrels per day. Chevron soon claimed full responsibility for the spill. The brazilian division's COO said, Chevron "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-_n_1104070.html" target="_hplink">takes full responsibility for this incident</a>," and that "any oil on the surface of the ocean is unacceptable to Chevron," reported AP. In December, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-payment_n_1149554.html"target="_hplink">seeking $10.6 billion in damages</a> from Chevron for the spill that leaked nearly 3,000 barrels of oil. In March 2012, a Brazilian federal judge <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/brazil-oil-spill-chevron_n_1355923.html" target="_hplink">allowed prosecutors to file criminal charges against Chevron and Transocean</a> and 17 executives from both companies were barred from leaving Brazil.
Rena Spill, New Zealand - Oct. 2011
In October 2011, a Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on a reef in Northern New Zealand and began leaking oil. With oil washing up on shore, a government minister deemed it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/new-zealand-oil-spill_n_1004643.html" target="_hplink">the country's largest maritime environmental disaster</a> a week later. Although over 2,000 sea birds were killed by the spill that spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins_n_1107289.html" target="_hplink">343 little blue penguins were rescued and cleaned of oil</a>. <em>[<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins-released_n_1151788.html" target="_hplink">Watch video of the penguins' release into the wild here.</a>]</em> In January, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/new-zealand-oil-spill-ship_n_1196568.html" target="_hplink">half of the stricken Rena began sinking</a> into the sea after breaking apart and spilling over 100 cargo containers.
Nigeria Oil Spill - Dec. 2011
The spill, which took place near the coast of Nigeria, was reported as "likely the worst to hit those waters in a decade," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/shell-oil-spill-nigeria_n_1164891.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. After two days, the spill had affected 115 miles (185 kilometers) of Nigerian coastline. Several days after the December 20 spill, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/26/shell-nigeria-oil-spill_n_1170198.html" target="_hplink">Shell reported that the leak -- which occurred about 75 miles offshore -- had been contained before it reached the Nigerian coast</a>. The spill, which covered 350 square miles of ocean at its peak, was reported as having released less than "40,000 barrels -- or 1.68 million gallons" of oil.
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