MAX J. ROSENTHAL
JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved exporting 40 percent of Israel's newfound natural gas reserves, keeping a larger amount for local consumption than originally expected.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet the decision struck a balance between domestic needs and the concerns of the exploration companies that will drill for gas underneath the Mediterranean Sea.
"It ensures the needs of the citizens of the state of Israel, both by filling the state coffers with considerable funds from exports and by supplying the local market with cheap energy," Netanyahu said.
Last year, an advisory panel proposed exporting just over half of the country's gas, sparking protests by Israelis who said the country should keep most of its reserves to reduce energy prices at home.
Israel began pumping gas from the large Tamar field off its coast earlier this year. It is expected to begin exporting when a second, larger field goes online in 2016.
The consortium that has developed the fields, led by U.S. company Noble Energy, did not immediately comment on Sunday's decision. In the past, it has said it would have preferred the larger export levels.
Hebrew University professor Eytan Sheshinski, an expert on energy policy, said that despite the export numbers, he expected the energy companies to be satisfied with Sunday's decision.
"When the dust settles, they can live with this decision, and I think it didn't cross their red line," said Sheshinski, who headed a committee that gave policy recommendations to the Israeli government in 2010 on taxing natural gas exports.
Sunday's decision reserved 540 billion cubic meters of natural gas for the domestic market. Netanyahu said that amount would supply Israelis with natural gas for at least 25 years, a figure that Sheshinski said was largely accurate.
Earlier in the month, Environment Minister Amir Peretz said he wanted at least 600 billion cubic meters set aside for local use.
Last week, Netanyahu said that Israel seeks to earn $60 billion over the next two decades from the exports.
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