To prevent oil spills, ministry needs more know-how, authority and regulations, environment minister says.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan sent an urgent letter on Wednesday to his colleague National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau demanding a halt to all exploratory drilling at the Leviathan natural gas field off Haifa.

Erdan said this was necessary until the ministry created the appropriate safety regulations for drilling.

Referencing the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where 500,000 tons of oil poured into the sea, Erdan pointed out that even a much smaller spill off of Israel’s coast could be potentially catastrophic. It could seriously impair essential infrastructure, such as power plants and desalination plants situated on the coast. It would also have a serious negative impact on the marine environment, fishing industry and tourism, he wrote.

Since legislation and regulations for offshore drilling do not yet exist, Erdan asked Landau to call a halt until the matter could be regularized. He added that his ministry was even now putting together a checklist of environmental requirements to which Noble Energy, the operator of the gas field, would have to adhere.

Erdan noted that he had asked the prime minister and justice minister to intervene in the matter earlier this year.

The National Infrastructures Ministry responded that it was taken aback by Erdan’s demand.

“The timing of the environmental protection minister’s letter is very surprising, considering that just recently Environmental Protection Ministry officials requested the assistance of the person responsible for oil in the National Infrastructures Ministry in understanding the environmental aspects of drilling for oil at sea. Just yesterday, the person responsible met with environment officials on this topic, Ministry spokeswoman Maya Etzioni conveyed to The Jerusalem Post.

“During that meeting, which was instigated by the person responsible for oil in the National Infrastructures Ministry, with the head of the Sea and Beaches Branch at the Environmental Protection Ministry and in conversation with Mr. Ben-David, deputy director-general for enforcement, it was decided to initiate a close professional cooperation on the issue.

“We have no doubt that once the minister receives an update from his people regarding the explanations that were given during that meeting, he will retract his request to stop the drilling,” she said.

Etzioni also provided a letter Dr. Yaakov Mimran, the person in charge of oil issues, sent Erdan in late December detailing the regulations that the National Infrastructures Ministry had adopted. In response to Erdan’s concern, Mimran wrote that his ministry had adopted the US regulations, which had been considerably tightened since the Gulf of Mexico disaster last summer. Since the operator of Leviathan was the US company Noble Energy, it was only natural that it do so, he wrote.

Mimran pointed out that drilling at Leviathan was halted for two weeks so that Noble could upgrade its blow out preventer to meet those more stringent standards.

The investors in Leviathan – Delek Energy, Razio, Isramco and Noble Energy – announced the results of their first exploratory drilling two weeks ago. Another deeper drilling is expected in the coming months to try and assess the likelihood of gas or oil at deeper depths.

None of the investors were willing to comment about Erdan’s letter on Thursday.

Earlier test results from seismic 3-D imaging in April indicated there was a 17 percent chance of oil at deeper levels of about 7,000 meters and an 8% chance of either gas or oil at an even deeper level, the investors said at the time.

Environmental Protection Ministry inspectors have also been invited to inspect the drilling platform though a specific date for the inspection has not been set.

Leviathan is the largest natural gas find in Israel’s history with an estimated 16 trillion cubic meters of gas.