Alleging Israeli Exploitation of Egypt’s Offshore Resources

Several  false reports have been circulating in the Egyptian and Arab-speaking media, suggesting that Israel and Cyprus had taken over three Egyptian natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea. The dilemma was instigated by Egyptian geologists Khaled Ouda and Engineer Khalid Al-Shafei, who claimed that Israel took the opportunity of the Egyptian official ineptness and commenced drilling operations within Egyptian territorial waters as early as April 2012.

Ouda stated that both wells claimed by Israel, Leviathan and Samsun, rest on top of $100 Billion worth of natural gas reserves. He claimed that while the Leviathan well is located 19 km to the north of Damietta and 235 km off the coast of the Israeli port city of Haifa, the Samsun field is situated 114 km from Damietta and 237 km from the nearest occupied Palestinian coasts. Al-Shafei resorted back to what he described as ancient manuscripts dating back to the second century BC, documenting the scientific discoveries made by the ancient Alexandrian scientist Eratosthenes in the east Mediterranean, where he discovered an underwater mountain housing rare species of crustaceous creatures. He argued that this manuscript constitutes ample evidence that the territory comprising the underwater mountain, which was named after Eratosthenes; historically belongs to Egypt’s territorial waters. Thus Al-Shafei suggests  that the Aphrodite natural gas well, falling within the same area, has been unlawfully been exploited by the Cypriots in defiance of the inherent Egyptian rights in controlling the surroundings of the Eratosthenes underwater mountain.

Geol. Moustafa El-Bahr, Vice-Chairman of the Egypt Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS), refutes such claims from another perspective, in an interview with Egypt Oil and Gas newspaper. As he explains, while Egypt possesses land and marine borders, the eastern land boundaries are being managed through the current international agreements, and enjoy special boundary-marking arrangements as opposed to marine boundaries. El-Bahr states that the presence of a certain line along the eastern boundaries does not necessitate that this line extends in the same way through the sea. According to the Maritime Law, or in other words, the international regulations governing marine boundaries, the method of setting out marine boundaries completely differ from the means of setting out land borderlines. El-Bahr reiterated that the failure to make this distinction has caused several commentators, including even some with scientific background, to come up with erroneous conclusions. He said, “Some university professors, not necessarily specialised in the matter have contributed to the emergence of this debate on the surface, and caused a great deal of confusion. They might well be specialised in their own fields of study, but not in what others do. As such, they should not have fell into the trap of extensively analysing an issue that hardly represents their field of specialisation. By doing so, they have either presented false assumptions, or they have built conclusions on initially incorrect assumptions”.

El-Bahr asserts that Egypt’s northern maritime boundaries with Cyprus in particular, were agreed and signed between the Egyptian and the Cypriot governments in 2003, based upon the 1982 UN maritime border setting-out treaty. The maritime boundary lines separating Egyptian and Cypriot national waters were also presented before the People’s Assembly, prior to gaining its approval. Henceforth, Al-Bahr condones that the maritime boundary between Egypt and Cyprus enjoys the consent and accord of both countries. In general, maritime boundaries are divided into two main components. First, there are the territorial waters, which fall within 12 miles from the shores. Second, there is the commercial boundary line, which extends up to 400 miles offshore. El-Bahr explained that the latter case is applicable in oceans, where the shoreline to shoreline distance between two neighbouring countries should be at least 800 miles, so as to allow a minimum share of approximately 400 miles per neighbour, while accounting for international waters in between. In the event where the shore to shore distance between two countries is less than 800 lines, the median line is typically taken as the commercial marine borderline. This case is identical with respect to Egypt’s maritime northern boundary with Cyprus. El-Bahr states that eight geographical stations or points are located between Egypt and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea; one located to the west while seven to the east.  From west to east they are numbered from 1 to 8, respectively, such that Point 8 represents the last maritime border spot between Egypt and Cyprus.

He recounts that, “Cyprus and Israel have been engaged in negotiations to define their respective maritime boundaries. The maritime border between Cyprus and Israel is defined by twelve points from north to south, such that the southernmost point, numbered 12, is the same exact Point 8 separating Cyprus from Egypt; both points possess the same coordinates”.

Regarding Egypt’s maritime boundaries with Israel, although the borderline is undefined, El-Bahr stated that EGAS usually heads to the responsible authorities prior to letting any auctions or bids within this geographical area:

“We have corresponded with the Armed Forces, enquiring them about the exact locations of our eastern maritime boundaries. The Armed Forces provided us with the coordinates of 5 border checkpoints extending between Rafah and Point 8, which is the same easternmost point of the Egyptian-Cypriot maritime borderline”.

El-Bahr states that EGas works with coordinates, taking maritime “admiral maps” as its reference, since they enjoy worldwide documentation and ratification. He rejects the concept of relying upon Google or any other statements made by unreliable sources. Further, by virtue of the nature of EGas operations, the company constantly follows all ongoing works in the Mediterranean Sea, in terms of exploration. El-Bahr denies the existence of something such as company refusing to announce its boundary coordinates. He confirms that EGas does not wait for others to declare their own borderline coordinates; and that the company possesses other sources to acquire the coordinates specifying the boundaries of exploration areas:

“Besides the company that undertakes the exploration works, another company typically owns the drilling rig. The practice of providing the drilling rig coordinates to all ships accessing within close proximity has been a worldwide habit, to avoid maritime accidents”.

As such, these coordinates are well known, El-Bahr sees that if someone wants to possess them, he can surely do it.  He relates the failure of those raising this dilemma to get the exact maritime boundary coordinates is that they are not specialised in the mining and exploration business.

“They failed to get the coordinates, and subsequently assumed that the other side refuses to reveal them. Their assumptions are explicitly false since we possess all of the field coordinates. When setting out the locations of gas fields, we utilise approved maps and not Google”, says El-Bahr.

The boundary lines between Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel

Consequently, El-Bahr reaffirmed that the company drew the northern maritime boundary, along with the virtual eastern maritime borderline. EGas then gathered the coordinates of all recently explored fields, whether to the east near Israel, or to the north near Cyprus. Such recent explorations included Aphrodite on the Cypriot side, and Leviathan and Samsun in Israel. It was then determined that the latter two fields fall outside of the virtual line on the eastern maritime boundary, whose coordinates were provided by the Armed Forces.

El-Bahr said, “Leviathan field is located 231 km north east of Damietta, 121 km from Haifa, and 180 km from Limassol, whereas the Samsun field is located 176 km north east of Damietta and 132 km from Haifa. Moreover, we found out that the Aphrodite field also falls outside of Egypt’s northern boundary limit, which was agreed with the Cypriot side in 2003”.

Consequently, in El-Bahr’s viewpoint, what is being propagated that Cyprus and Israel are exploiting billions of cubic metres of Egyptian gas in the Mediterranean Sea has little basis, and lacks a considerable amount of accuracy and precision. He considers such claims as deprived of any sort of scientific foundation on which a theory affecting Egyptian national security could be built.

“What happened is that some persons, honestly speaking, love being always under the spotlight. When I am a communication engineer, what do I have to say in exploration of oil and gas? This is completely irrelevant. I imagine a communications engineer discussing cabling, improvement of telecommunication methods, etc. but I can hardly imagine him discussing the exploration of oil and gas”, said El-Bahr.

El-Bahr criticized the claims made by Al-Shafei, suggesting that Israeli submarines had intruded into the Nile embouchures and photographed the Nile bed.  He reiterates that things like that are the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, and not the responsibility of either Al-Shafei or the Ministry of Petroleum. Nevertheless, El-Bahr mentioned having contacted the Ministry of Defense, who confirmed that, “not even an ant had intruded into Egypt’s maritime boundaries”. He also states that the fact that Al-Shafei had presented a photograph showing the label “Nile Bank” does not negate the possibility of digitally-manipulated photography.

Commenting on the issue of the Eratosthenes underwater mountain, El-Bahr does not see that the manuscripts dating back to nearly 200 BC, and states that the underwater Eratosthenes Mountain defines Egypt territorial waters. He finds this story as completely irrelevant to the subject issue. He responds by saying that the fact that an Egyptian scientist studied this mountain and discovered rare crustacean creatures taking refuge inside it, does not mean that this mountain is our right.

“If this were to be the case, the entire American continent should have belonged to Spain, which sent the exploration campaign of Christopher Columbus,” he said. If there were to be manuscripts suggesting that Egypt’s boundaries are after the underwater mountain, and not before it; El-Bahr questions why Al-Shafei does not present it before the official responsible parties. On the personal level, El-Bahr admitted having contacted the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the National House of Manuscripts, asking for any documents addressing the issue of the Eratosthenes Mountain. He even corresponded with Dr. Khalid Ouda, through the head of the National Security Committee of the Shura Council, but never received any response. Only the House of Manuscripts phoned Al-Bahr stating that the term “manuscripts” is irrelevant to 200 BC. El-Bahr reaction came by saying,
“When I want to make a bubble, and attract the spotlights, for any particular reason; I may resort to a fabrication. Unfortunately, a broad part of the current media has now turned out its entire attention towards exciting public opinion without any calculation of the repercussions of such deliberate excitement, which can prove to be extremely costly”.

El-Bahr sees that the media tycoon Mr. Yousri Fouda should not have brought the issue of the Israeli drilling rig for the first time ever in his widely viewed programme aired on ON TV, as such issues should be dealt with very sensitively, due to their close link to Egypt’s national security. He believes that this issue should have been dealt with more professionally, while avoiding aggressive tone. El-Bahr advises media professionals of the need not to neglect that the other side is watching. He reiterates that revealing at this stage wide slogans uncovering our intentions to counteract either Israel or Cyprus, they will prepare themselves well for that day. However, if the reaction is being quietly planned to without giving much attention to loud media speech, it might well be a lot more effective in meeting Egyptian national security objectives.

“In my opinion, the current media focuses more on excitement in lieu of the state’s interests. There are absolutely no debates about this issue in either Israel or Cyprus”, El-Bahr said.

On the question of the currently unofficial borderline between Egyptian and Israeli territorial waters, Al-Bahr states that according to the responsible authorities, the eastern boundary lines with Israel were not drawn in order not to impair the Palestinian rights to possess territorial waters. He recounts having attended a conference last month in London, where an Israeli official directly delivered to him the interest of his government to draw the maritime borderline between Egypt and Israel. His reply was, “there are no mutual maritime borders between both countries; and that such borders only exist between Egypt and Palestine”. While there is no officially drawn borderline, there are virtual lines. “When having adopted the scientific method and respected international treaties while setting out this virtual eastern maritime borderline; there should not be an issue apart from the official signature”, El-Bahr said. He sees that since both parties actually respect this virtual line, however, postponing the signature is based upon the preservation of Palestinian rights.  

Commenting on the geographical location of the gas wells suggested by Dr. Ouda, where he stated that Samsun field is located 114 km offshore, El-Bahr said, “I am sorry to state that this talk can only be said by irresponsible persons, and should not be said by someone from a scientific background, being a false assumption”. He affirms having at his disposal during the ONTV programme the British Navy map, on which the entire world depends, and which is only issued by a single source. He confirms having possession of the exact gas well coordinates set out both physically and on the map, only to be faced with the refusal of those in charge of the programme to reveal it before the cameras. “Henceforth, I sadly state that this directed media aims at exciting public opinion, and attracting viewership and ads, without giving much attention to the state interests”, El-Bahr comments.

It is to be noted that the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company has let an international auction for oil and gas exploration within 15 sectors; 2  land sectors and 13 maritime sectors, which are mostly located within the area enclosed by the eastern and northern maritime boundaries. Once the contract is signed, operations cannot commence without prior consent and approval of EGas, including any technical works, seismic survey, or field studies. EGas then acquires a copy of all information, documentation, and records produced by the companies operating in every sector.

By: Ethar Chalaby