Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said he expects offshore natural gas exploration to accelerate in the next few months, with investment from some of the world's largest oil and gas companies.
Steinitz said he recently met officials from ENI and 20-30 other energy firms, such as Shell, Hess , Exxon Mobile and EOG, in a bid to entice them to invest in Israeli fields off its Mediterranean coast.
Under a framework agreement approved in August by lawmakers, a group led by Houston-based Noble Energy (NBL) and Israeli conglomerate Delek Group will be allowed to keep control of the yet to be developed Leviathan field.
Delek will have to sell its stake in another field, Tamar, and Noble will be required to cut its stake in the field to 25 percent from 36 percent. They will also have to sell their holdings in two smaller sites, Tanin and Karish.
"My intent is to reopen Israel's economic waters for exploration," Steinitz told a foreign press event on Tuesday.
"There is still the potential for new discoveries in our economic waters," he said, adding that it might take up to 6 months to resume exploration. "We do have serious interest in investing in Tanin and Karish, and maybe Tamar ... and in exploring in our economic waters."
Steinitz said experts estimate there are between 10,000 and 15,000 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in the East Mediterranean basin that includes Israel, Egypt and Cyprus -- enough to supply domestic needs as well as Europe.
Italy's ENI this year discovered the large Zohr field off Egypt's coast.
Only 25-30 percent of Israel's economic waters have been properly investigated, Steinitz said.
Leviathan's development remains a top priority, Steinitz said. With estimated reserves of 622 bcm, it is set to begin production in 2018 or 2019 and is expected to supply billions of dollars' worth of gas to Egypt and Jordan in addition to Israel.
Its development was halted when Israel's anti-trust regulator ruled that Noble and Delek's control of all of Israel's gas reserves constituted a monopoly, leading to a fight with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The regulator resigned and Economy Minister Aryeh Deri last week stepped down from the post, giving Netanyahu control of the ministry. As a result, he is expected to waive normal antitrust laws and give rapid approval to the deal to develop Leviathan.
Steinitz expects Netanyahu to sign the waiver to bypass antitrust concerns by the end of 2015.
(Reporting by Steven Scheer)