Israel’s Bright Energy Future: Interview with Rafael Barak, Israel’s Ambassador to Canada

“We discovered offshore gas almost 10 years ago. Since then, we have tried to extract this gas and bring it to our shores.”

“We discovered offshore gas almost 10 years ago. Since then, we have tried to extract this gas and bring it to our shores.”

Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Rafael “Rafi” Barak, has extensive experience as a diplomat and speaks Hebrew, Spanish, English and French. His postings have taken him around the world, from Latin America to Europe and the United States to Canada. He was also heavily involved during the Oslo Peace Process and, prior to his posting in Canada, he was the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. His current posting is Canada and has involved successful efforts to encourage collaborations in the energy and cyber security fields. Israel discovered huge amounts of natural gas offshore, is a large player in solar and intends to become energy self-sufficient in a few years. He gave a wide-ranging interview with “ENERGY Magazine” about Israel’s bright energy future as well as ties with Canada’s energy sector.

Diane: How have you found the posting in Canada?

Ambassador Barak: It is a privilege to serve as Israeli Ambassador here in Canada. I am a beneficiary of the friendship between the two countries, the people and the politicians. I have been able to further important files to both Canada and Israel working closely on trade, on technology, and on trying to promote economic and energy relations. Recently, we concluded the negotiations for upgrading our free trade agreement that was originally signed in 1996.

Diane: Back in 2014 you indicated that you were interested in entering into new fields of co-operation with Canada – such as energy. You said at one point, “we are the land of milk and honey, but suddenly we’ve discovered natural gas” and you noted that Canada – with its energy expertise, would be a natural partner in developing the gas reserves. Can you give us a sense of what has happened in this area since 2014?

Ambassador Barak: We discovered offshore gas almost ten years ago. Since then, we have tried to extract this gas and bring it to our shores as we recognize that it will help drive and develop our economy. Already about 2 per cent of our GDP is as a result of natural gas production. Canada has provided great learnings in terms of the best frameworks and policies to regulate the production and transportation of these resources. We have discovered natural gas in several different fields and we have already found 960 billion cubic meters (bcm) and the expectation is about 2,200 bcm. I would like to raise for your readers three specific opportunities for Canadian companies to engage with Israel’s gas sector:

  1. We are looking for buyers for two gas fields called Tanin and Karish (which have between 60-80 bcm and an estimated value of half a billions dollars) that are being sold by their owners, Israel’s Delek Group and of Noble Energy of Texas, and in the near future is due to a have decision by our regulators.
  2. Our largest discovery, named Leviathan field (which has an estimated 500 bcm), is going to be developed by Noble and Delek, but all the additional services, besides drilling, will be open to energy services companies and Canada has great expertise.
  3. A new bid will be published shortly for 24 offshore blocks and I would very much like to see Canadian companies involved and successfully finding gas or oil.

Diane: Are these natural gas reserves all offshore?

Ambassador Barak: Yes, all of them are offshore in the Mediterranean located in our exclusive economic zone.

Diane: The gas finds are shared with neighboring nations, some of whom Israel doesn’t get along with, so when and how much will be developed in the near and medium future and from where?

Ambassador Barak: No, all of the gas that Israel has found is located in Israel’s sovereign territory. However, experts assess that some additional fields go along our borders with other nations. We have a demarcation agreement with Cyprus. On the other hand, the maritime border with Lebanon has not yet been settled. The success of Noble Energy, an American company from Houston, finding gas in our territory, demonstrates the opportunities open for Canadian and international companies in this endeavor.

Diane: You say now that the gas industry represents 2 per cent of your GDP?

Ambassador Barak: It is almost 2 per cent of our GDP. We already have almost 60 per cent of our utilities and we have big industries using gas. We also have a national program to try to use more natural gas as a transportation fuel. Here again we are taking advantage of Canadian companies that have expertise in this area. We are inviting them to come to Israel. In fact, this November 2 and 3, 2016 a conference on “Smart Mobility,” which focuses on the use of natural gas for public transportation, will take place in Tel Aviv and Canadian companies have been invited to participate (for more details: My Prime Minister is hosting this conference and supporting this initiative.

Diane: So you are interested in using compressed natural gas (CNG)?

Ambassador Barak: Yes, particularly for transport.

It is important for me to underscore that in 2013 the Government of Israel decided to allocate 540 bcm of our offshore gas to meet our range of domestic energy needs for at least 30 years and the rest will be available for export.

“All natural gas reserves are offshore in the Mediterranean located in our exclusive economic zone”.

“All natural gas reserves are offshore in the Mediterranean located in our exclusive economic zone”.

Diane: So you think you may have enough gas down the road to export. Where would you export it to?

Ambassador Barak: With respect to export opportunities there are several possibilities. There are political questions and factors, but we expect that our neighbours are potential export markets. For the moment, we are exporting a very small amount to an industrial plant in Jordan.

Diane: Is moving the transportation sector to natural gas part of an effort to move Israel to being energy self-sufficient?

Ambassador Barak: Yes, this is a target that my Prime Minister has expressed. You can’t depend on one form of energy to meet all energy needs. But for us, it is definitely a very significant change to have, for the first time since our independence in 1948, a domestic supply of natural gas as a secure source of energy. So following the Bible, you can now say that Israel is the land of milk, honey and also gas.

Diane: Do you have a renewable strategy?

Ambassador Barak: We have a target to have 10 per cent of our energy supplied by renewable resources by 2020 and 17 per cent by 2030. We have been developing solar for many years. If you have been to Israel, you will see solar panels on many roofs for water heaters. The major challenge is that to have a solar field you need a large amount of land. Israel is two thirds the size of Vancouver Island so identifying space is always a challenge. In the northern part of my country we have some wind energy. Also on biofuels, we are learning from Canada. In fact, last year we had 10 scientists from Canada’s bio fuels centre of excellence, led by Dr. Don Smith from McGill, come to Israel to have a joint exchange on bio fuels, which has been a positive effort that has since developed.

Diane: Resiliency of the energy system and cyber security of energy systems – is this an area for greater Canada-Israel cooperation?

Ambassador Barak: For many years we have been dealing with the issue of cyber security. Ben-Gurion University, located in southern Israel, has been leading this effort for almost 25 years. In fact, when it comes to exporting cyber security products, Israel is second in the world next to the United States. So we often look for opportunities to exchange information and share best practices. For example, we invited Canadian utilities to come to Israel to learn about some of our efforts and we will again be attending the annual Grid Security Conference (GridSecCon) of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a meeting of Mexican, Canadian and U.S. utilities, which this year is held in Quebec City, to discuss cyber issues related to energy and utility.

Diane: I know that Israeli companies have been involved in technologies surrounding and maybe in the development of the Canadian oil sands in Alberta. Is this another area for greater cooperation between or two countries?

Ambassador Barak: Canada and Israel have an agreement that is a tool to support technological innovation including energy. The name is CIIRDF, the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation ( CIIRDF brings together Israeli and Canadian companies through two ways. First, bilateral funds with the Governments of Canada and Ontario support collaborative research and development between private sector companies in Israel and Canada with a focus on the commercialization of new technologies. One of these funds, the Canada-Israel Energy Science and Technology Fund (CIEST Fund), is with Natural Resources Canada and has generated more than 60 linkages (with a total value of more than $24 million) in its first three years—an initiative we hope will be continued.

CIIRDF also acts as a platform for Israeli technology to assist in Canadian energy projects. Since CIIRDF became an associate member of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) in June 2014, it has worked to source Israeli technology, mainly on water resources, to help address environmental priority areas of the oil sands. Last year, 21 technological programs have been proposed to COSIA and seven are already in the pilot stage. As I said before, we are not experts in energy but we are experts in other things that are important to the energy industry such as water management. I think more cooperation like this is valuable and we recently had another meeting with COSIA engineers that I am confident will lead to a significant number of new projects.

I would like to add that Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, The Honourable Jim Carr, already last February in Houston. Minister Carr was invited to Israel and he promised that he will come in the very near future. I am sure his visit will be another significant opportunity to further develop our energy relationship.

Ambassador Barak and the Honourable Jim Carr, minister of Natural Resource Canada.

Ambassador Barak and the Honourable Jim Carr, minister of Natural Resource Canada.

Diane: Your term here in Canada is coming to an end soon, any further reflections on your time in the role or in Canada?

Ambassador Barak: Yes, I am ending my term at the end of November. In Israel, we have a mandatory age to retire so this will be my last service after 40 years in the Israeli Foreign Service. I will return to my home in Jerusalem with a full sense of satisfaction not only in deepening our bilateral ties, but also I am enormously rewarded by the knowledge that, as part of my mission, I have been a “matchmaker” bringing Israelis and Canadians together. I will definitely come back to visit my good friends in Canada.

Diane: Thank you so much for your time, I have learned a lot. I appreciate your help and good luck in your retirement.

Diane Francis, editor at large, National Post and author of “Merger of the Century: Why Canada and America Should Become One Country.”