TEL AVIV—Two years ago, Ratio Oil Exploration LP, an energy firm here, employed five people and was worth about half a million dollars.
Today it sits at the center of a gas bonanza that has investors, international oil companies, Israeli politicians and even Hezbollah, Israel’s sworn enemy, clamoring for a piece of the action.
Ratio’s market capitalization now approaches $1 billion. The rally at Ratio is thanks to the company’s 15% stake in a giant offshore gas field called Leviathan, operated by Houston-based Noble Energy Inc.
On Wednesday, the frenzy got fresh fuel: Noble confirmed its earlier estimates that the field contains 16 trillion cubic feet of gas—making it the world’s biggest deepwater gas find in a decade, with enough reserves to supply Israel’s gas needs for 100 years.
It’s still early days, and getting all that gas out of the seabed may be more difficult than it seems today. But Noble and its partners think the field could hold enough gas to transform Israel, a country precariously dependent on others for energy, into a net-energy exporter.
Such a transformation could potentially alter the geopolitical balance of the Mideast, giving Israel a new economic advantage over its enemies.
Even before Wednesday’s announcement confirming the size of Leviathan, the big field was causing a ruckus in Israel and the region.
Leviathan, named after the Biblical sea monster, and two smaller gas fields nearby have kicked up a broad speculative craze.
The energy index of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange rose 1,700% in the past year. In recent months, energy stocks accounted for about a quarter of trading activity on the exchange, once mostly the domain of real-estate companies.
It’s also shaken regional relations. Lebanese politicians are trying to lure companies to explore their nearby waters, while the two countries—still technically at war—have threatened each other over offshore resources.
Leviathan sits some 84 miles off Israel’s northern coast and more than three miles beneath the Mediterranean’s seabed. Noble began drilling its first exploratory well in the field in October.
In March, the U.S. Geological Survey released its first assessment of the zone, estimating it contained 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s equal to half the proven gas reserves of the U.S.
The finds also exposed a grittier underside to Israel’s financial sector. A string of criminal investigations launched by Israeli authorities into share-price movements and company disclosures have dogged some of the bonanza’s highest flyers.
„We saw new players, and these skeleton entities that had nothing to do with oil, had no experience or know-how, buying and trading leases, making baseless claims,” said Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Uzi Landau. „We decided we had to stop this crazy atmosphere engulfing the market.” He wouldn’t discuss specific companies.
Officials at the Israeli Securities Authority declined to comment on specific cases, but said they were concerned about an ongoing pattern in which small energy companies publish vague or misleading reports that cause their share prices to skyrocket, and often to plummet later.
Finance Minister Steinitz has so far ignored the pressure. Last month, he said a government-appointed committee had made preliminary recommendations to abolish tax breaks for energy firms and impose steep tax increases of 20% to 60% on windfall profits. Any tax changes are subject to approval by Israel’s cabinet.