06/25/2010 22:55

The residents of Zichron Ya’acov and its environs – vowing to use any means necessary and showing lots of chutzpa – have joined forces to battle the government and the newly empowered energy sector.

Looking to the west from the top of a hill in Zichron Ya’acov, all you can see is an open vista of green fields and glittering fish ponds; with the Mediterranean Sea stretching out behind them to the horizon.

Turn to face the south, however, and the view will be spoiled by the 200-meter chimneys of the Hadera coal power plant located 12 kilometers away.

In 2009, a natural gas deposit discovered 90 kilometers off the northern coast of Israel revolutionized Israel’s energy outlook forever. With reserves that are anticipated to meet Israel’s needs for the next 30 years, and the hint of more finds already stimulating the imagination, the government wants to do everything possible for the newfound gas to reach Israel’s shores quickly. The geographical location it is currently homing in on for the landing site is in Zichron Ya’acov’s backyard.

Afraid that if they don’t do something – soon – chimneys of a new plant will forever mar their view, pollute their air and endanger their lives, the residents of Zichron Ya’acov and the surrounding villages have decided to take a stand and face up to the government and the newly empowered energy sector. A growing movement of people from the region and beyond, vowing to use any means necessary and showing lots of chutzpa, have joined forces to battle an impending decision on the placement of a 250-dunam processing plant.

Driving around the Carmel coastline towns of Zichron Ya’acov, Dor, Nahsholim, Ein Ayala and Fureidis, you get a clear understanding of just how unpopular Yitzhak Tshuva is around there.

The owner of Delek Energy, one of the partners in the proposed processing plant, has become the focus of the residents’ campaign. His name appears in red on hundreds of banners stretched along the roads and in the towns. He features in the headlines of every local magazine and newsletter.

Tshuva is a convenient foil for the residents’ campaign. A self-made billionaire, who immigrated to Israel from Libya as an infant, he now controls various holdings in real estate, finance and energy. For many Tshuva is the archetype of the aggressive Israeli tycoon, the type that many admire, but also fear.

For decades, Israelis have been looking for natural resources off the coast. Beginning with the government in the ‘50s and, after it gave up, the private sector in the ‘90s, nobody had ever found anything worth drilling for. All that changed when Tshuva and his partners discovered a huge deposit of natural gas at a site named Tamar, 90 km. west of Haifa. The deposit, with 142 billion cubic meters (BCM) of high-grade natural gas, producing 25,000 barrels a day, is worth roughly $8 billion.

In an interview with Army Radio on the eve of the find, Tshuva celebrated the discovery. “This is one of the largest finds in the world. I have no doubt that this is a day of celebration for the State of Israel. From now on, we will no longer be dependent on others for gas, and we will even become exporters. We are dealing with unbelievable amounts, and now the State of Israel has a solution for future generations.”

Delek stock rose 35 percent that day.

Today, a banner stretched across the sign welcoming people to Moshav Ein Ayala conveys the residents’ sentiments bluntly: “We will sacrifice everything for Israel – [but] not for Yitzhak Tshuva.”

The people behind the campaign claim that the only reason the processing plant is being pushed down their throats is because of the pressure placed on the government by Delek Energy and its partners, American energy giant, Noble Energy. They accuse the government of preferring the financial interests of gas barons over the well-being of the residents.

“We woke up one morning to discover that a natural gas receiving station and processing plant is going to be built 500 meters from our homes,” said Stanley Barkan, a South African-born resident of Moshav Ein Ayala and a chief scientist at Kodak.

“The first we heard of it was in March, when our regional council was called before the National Planning Committee, to respond to the suggested proposed sites, two out of six of them, and the one most preferred by the owners located minutes from our homes. We immediately knew that we had to do something.”

Barkan said he and his neighbors quickly learned all they could about the natural gas business; and the more they found out about the planned plant, the more they began to worry.

“The natural gas from Tamar will arrive at the plant at unbelievable pressures. Coming from 1,650 meters below sea level, it arrives at the plant at 450 Bar [450 times the pressure in the atmosphere]. If something goes wrong, the whole region will be affected by the explosion,” said Barkan. “We looked into it, and found out that in most countries, such plants are usually placed seven or eight km. from the nearest settlement.

“At the plant, the pressure is reduced and the gas is processed to make it suitable for electricity production. Residues removed from the gas are stored until they can be transferred for disposal. The filtering and cleaning process requires a lot of buildings and silos and also tall chimneys to exhaust the fumes. The air all across the coast will be smelly and harmful. Our beloved region will look, smell and sound like an industrial zone,” Barkan added.

Aside from the safety and environmental concerns, the residents are also worried about their security. “We know the country and reality we live in. As soon as such a plant is built, it will become a strategic target for Israel’s enemies and the region will become a site for rocket target practice,” said Barkan.

What really annoys the campaigners is the way the plant was placed on their doorstep. The gas deposit was found in January 2009. In May 2010, the decision on where to place the plant was already before the National Planning Committee. Anyone familiar with Israel’s planning bureaucracy knows that in order to move to the top of the planning and permitting network so quickly, strong pressure has to be placed on the system. As Prime Minister Netanyahu is fond of mentioning in speeches, Israel is ranked 120th in the world when it comes to permit-issuing times.

At the May meeting of the committee, National Gas Authority chairman Shuki Shtern explained the urgency.

“If the natural gas from Tamar doesn’t reach Israel during 2013, we will find ourselves in a situation whereby the deposit in Mary B’ will dwindle and the alternative that appears reasonable, though other options are being examined, is that the available substitute for electricity production will be oil extracts, mostly diesel and mazut. The price differential, if we get there, will cause the state losses of $700 million a year.”

Mary B’ is an older natural gas deposit located off the southern coast of Ashdod. It is also owned by Delek and Noble and is the main source of natural gas to Israel, the other being East Mediterranean Gas, a company based in Egypt.

At an energy industry conference at the beginning of June, Delek Energy CEO Gideon Tadmor said that if a final decision on the location of the plant wasn’t reached soon, the project might fall behind schedule, miss the time-slot reserved for the special equipment required to construct the piping and the plant, and harm financing agreements. He said it was vital for the pipeline, and for Israel, that the plant be operational by the end of 2012.

Tadmor characterized the residents’ opposition as a case of the NIMBY syndrome, an acronym for Not In My Back Yard.

Barkan and his fellow activists claim that the officials in the gas authorities are too quick to back up the investors and have not done a sufficient job of protecting the public interest. They claim they are not being selfish and suggest a location for the plant that won’t endanger anybody – an offshore barge.

“We don’t understand the rush, and don’t accept that such a decision should be made at the companies’ convenience. If it wasn’t for our protests, the [idea of the] barge wouldn’t even be on the table.

The offshore barge idea is on the table, although only tentatively. In the May committee meeting, Shtern confirmed that such an option was possible, but stressed to the participants that it would take five years to build the plant on the barge, and that the offshore location decreased the plant’s dependency.

“Treating the gas offshore doesn’t exclude the necessity of a facility on the shore,” said Shtern, explaining that such a facility would itself likely take up 150 dunams, even if most of the processing took place at sea.

While the residents of the region are busy conducting a public relations battle, the local councils prefer to fight the plant’s placement through the courts. In March, the local councils of Zichron Ya’acov, Fureidis and Hof Hacarmel petitioned the Supreme Court to have the planning works on the Dor site stopped.

In an interview with the local press, Zichron Ya’acov’s mayor, Eli Abutbul, spoke harshly about the private companies’ activities.

“Gideon Tadmor, who is leading the project to erect the gas processing plant in our region on behalf of Noble Energy and Tshuva, decided that in light of the dismal failure in his efforts to ‘buy’ the local authorities and lead us to agree to having this monolithic project constructed, it was time to shift strategies and try to ‘buy’ the residents – to convince them that he and his friends were planning on building ‘the first Israeli Disneyland,’ and not the first destructive gas plant in Israel.”

Abutbul said that “for eight months, Tadmor and his friends hid the fact that they wanted to change the living patterns and quality of life in the region, while at the same time they were quietly and with the aid of state officials, promoting this crazy project.”

The mayor even lashed out at the neighboring kibbutz, Ma’ayan Zvi, for agreeing to sell land to the corporation, accusing them of “selling us out because of greed.”

The petition to the Supreme Court is scheduled to be heard at the end of June. According to the petitioners, the National Planning Committee broke the law when they asked Noble Energy to conduct the planning procedures for the site. The councils claimed that the privatization of the planning procedures and their placement in the hands of Noble Energy was done to “quickly and efficiently promote the plans,” and that the act was “unlawful and unreasonable.”

The councils went on to state that the companies have a built-in conflict of interest – recommending the site because of their desire to save money by building the plant close to the shoreline and closer to the gas extraction point.

Both the National Planning Committee and Noble Energy said they would only respond to the claims in court.

In the last few weeks, Delek and Noble, aware of the fierce public campaign being fought against them, have attempted to reach out to the region’s residents and convince them regarding their good will and eagerness to compromise. They have recently shown a willingness to ease their conditions – agreeing, for example, to consider the possibility of splitting the plant in two, with one small site located on the shore and another in a quarry located 1.5 km. inland.

At the June conference, Tadmor urged the campaigners to sit down with Delek and Noble representatives in calmer settings so they could settle their fears. He even offered to take them to the companies’ plant in Ashdod so they could see for themselves what the future site would look like.

Albert Beger is unwilling to hear about it. Beger, a 25-year resident of Dor, was one of the first to join the protest campaign and during the said conference was one of the most vocal protesters, repeatedly disrupting the conference with catcalls and hurling accusations at the speakers.

“I’m a jazz musician, and my slogan is: ’Jazz, not Gas.’ I’ve lived in Dor with my wife and three kids for 25 years – and one fine day, a gas plant is dropped on my head, 800 meters from my house,” said Beger.

“I want to make it clear. We want the natural gas. We support the state and recognize the gas’s importance to the economy and the environment. We are not saying ‘Not in my back yard.’ What we’re saying is that this should be considered responsibly, and the gas should be processed in a place that doesn’t endanger humans.

“If something happens to the pressurized gas, we’re talking about an ‘atomic explosion.’” Beger said that if the companies aren’t happy with the offshore barge option, they should look for another place, somewhere in the southern desert, far away from human beings.

“We are clever enough to find gas two kilometers under the sea, we should be clever enough to deal with it in a way that won’t put people at risk.

“I’m saying: Slow down. The decision-makers shouldn’t have to make their choices under pressure from financial powers. The companies have a single interest at heart, to make money,’” said Beger.

“This campaign is gaining steam,” he noted. “More and more people from all across the country are joining the cause. In the end, if there won’t be a choice, this will turn into a civil revolt,” said Beger.

“People need to realize that we’ll go all the way with this. We plan to lie in front of the bulldozers, if need be.”

The residents of Zichron Ya’acov and Hof Hacarmel face an uphill battle. The forces they oppose are strong and resourceful. A few weeks ago, the companies announced a new natural gas find that they claim will make Tamar look like a puddle.

In Livyatan, the new find, the government believes it has found enough natural gas to make Israel a world leader in the energy market, exporting gas to Europe and altering the geo-political power structure by breaking the West’s dependency on Arab oil. Doubtless the new find will also need a pipeline into Israel.

In the upcoming weeks, the decision will be made. It is up to the men and women of the National Planning Committee to recommend to the government the desired location for the plant. In doing so, they will have to find a balance between potential bounty and potential risk.