More optimistic reports continue to flow from the giant Leviathan energy field off the Haifa coast. Following previous higher estimates of gas and “signs of oil,” the latest report points to a potential of 4 billion barrels of “black gold.”

The ramifications of the discovery are immense. If the estimates materialize, Israel will become self-sufficient in energy, enjoy a boon of employment for engineers and laborers, and will become an exporter of gas and oil. The shekel, barring a conflict with Hizbullah or Iran, may become rock-solid, dropping the representative rate; Israel's shekel is now worth about 26.3 cents (3.8 shekels) to the dollar. 

The announcement of the new estimates states that there is a 17 percent chance of finding reserves equal to 3 billion barrels of oil at a depth of slightly more than a mile undersea. The oil field is slightly beneath the mammoth gas reserves that already have been estimated to contain 13 trillion cubic feet of gas.

There also is an 8 percent chance that another 1.2 billion barrels exist at an even lower level. Earlier this month, oil reserves at Rosh HaAyin, east of Tel Aviv and bordering Samaria, were estimated to have a possible potential of 1.5 billion barrels of oil but that commercial quantities will be much lower, if at all. Israel's estimated oil consumption is slightly less than 100 million barrels a year.

Yitzchak Teshuva, head of the Delek Group that is part of the consortium probing the Leviathan field, has jubilantly exclaimed that the gas reserves will turn Israel into an energy exporter.

Officials added that a decision on whether to drill for the oil reserves will not be made before October, when drilling for the gas reserves at “Leviathan 1” is to begin at a cost of $150 million. The operation will last five months, and a decision on drilling for oil may await the results of the gas exploration; analysts have emphasized that the chances of huge oil reserves are only 17 percent. However, every previous report has so far proven to be overly conservative.

A South African company will head the drilling, but if a decision is made to drill at deeper levels for oil, a North American company with experience at those levels will be contracted.

The estimated gas reserves already have encouraged government officials to sell back to Egypt natural gas that Israel is committed to buy. In addition, Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly suggested to Greece that it buy natural gas from Israel.

The energy discovery has brought two headaches: several Finance ministry officials want to hike the royalties on gas and oil discoveries to add more money to government coffers, raising heated protests from the energy consortium. Secondly, Hizbullah and Lebanon are claiming that the Leviathan reserves are in Lebanese territorial waters, and have threatened war with Israel over the energy field.

The Leviathan discovery is separate from the Tamar field, located to the south, which also is estimated to contain huge gas reserves that could possibly supply Israel’s gas needs at least until 2030.