Skip to Content

Israel joins the Mideast’s energy riches

“Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses,” Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, told a banquet in 1973. “He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil.” And it’s true: In a region flush with crude, Israel has always been an energy importer.

That is, until four years ago, when a Houston driller named Noble Energy (NBL), in partnership with the Israeli Delek Group, discovered the Tamar gas field. The vein has an estimated 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas underneath the Mediterranean Sea. In 2010, Noble found the Leviathan field, which holds an estimated 18 trillion cubic feet — the world’s largest deepwater natural-gas discovery that year.

On March 31, gas began flowing from Tamar. At $3 billion, the rig there is the largest privately funded infrastructure project in Israel’s history. Leviathan’s rig, which is slated to come online in 2016, is projected to cost at least $5 billion. Together, the two fields are believed to cover Israel’s domestic consumption for more than 100 years, plus turn a tidy profit in exports. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the discoveries “manna from heaven.”

MORE: Qatar takes over the world

Israel’s gas didn’t quite fall from the sky. In 1998, Gideon Tadmor, CEO of Delek, saw the returns on offshore exploration in neighboring Egypt and sent an employee to Houston. “Bring someone home!” he commanded. Three months later the employee told Tadmor he’d found two companies interested in a meeting. Tadmor boarded the next flight, but a black cat ran down the aisle, delaying it. Then, as the airplane took off, the right engine exploded. When he finally arrived in Houston, Tadmor was informed that one of the companies had dropped out. Noble remained.

The Noble-Delek joint venture began operating in Israel in 1998. The next year the partnership drilled Noah, its first discovery well. Its second, Mari-B, came online in 2004. But Noble encountered unforeseen challenges during its expansion. In 2011 the Israeli government retroactively raised profit levies from 20% to 60%, after Noble had already invested $1 billion.

MORE: Has the fuel cell car’s time finally come?

The biggest impediment to Leviathan’s rig, however, is Israel’s export policy. There isn’t one. “Without an export policy, there’s no way you can commit,” says Charles Davidson, Noble’s CEO. Last year a government committee recommended that Israel export up to 17.6 trillion cubic feet of its gas reserves and save at least 15.9 trillion cubic feet for domestic consumption. Among the options discussed for export is Jordan — whose energy imports, like Israel’s, have dwindled because of turbulence in Egypt — as well as Turkey. In June 2013 the Israeli cabinet approved the export plan, but its decision is facing a challenge in the Supreme Court.

Despite the hiccups, Noble continues to explore in the region, and it has begun drilling a seventh prospect in the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps in a show of its fierceness and fortitude, the joint venture has named the field Karish — Hebrew for “shark.”

This story is from the September 16, 2013 issue of Fortune.