04/08/2011 04:55

Energy company and environmental groups spar over the right to derive energy from subterranean layers.

After receiving the “black award” at a green award ceremony held by Israel’s top environmental organizations two weeks ago, Israel Energy Initiatives says that criticisms of its oil shale drilling project were inaccurate, and that it is adhering to all relevant environmental protocol.

On March 22, a series of Green Globe awards were distributed by Israel’s umbrella organization for environmental groups – Life and Environment – to the organizations and people a team of judges had chosen as the best and worst contributors to the environment in the past year. The “black award” was given to the oil shale project in the Adullam region of Israel’s Judea Coastal Plain – a project of Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), chaired by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

“There were around 10 options and [the judges] selected this as one of the most potentially hazardous to environmental health and nature these days in Israel,” Naor Yerushalmi, executive director of Life and Environment, told The Jerusalem Post just before the awards.

“This would be another regular environment campaign, but the twist here is that one of the [backers] is Michael Steinhardt, a real Zionist, a real lover of Israel, a supporter of the environment.”

A week prior to the ceremony, Yerushalmi sent a letter to Steinhardt about the dangers of oil shale drilling, which was co-signed by Amit Bracha, executive director of Israel Union for Environmental Defense, and Kosha Pakman, executive director and CEO of SPNI.

The letter itself was actually drafted by an IUED attorney, Keren Halperin, who is the director of the organization’s environment and community project.

While the group never received an official response from Steinhardt or the company, the Post was able to connect with both Steinhardt and Relik Shafir, CEO of IEI, who stood by the company’s environmental practices.

Before that evening’s ceremony – which Shafir attended and spoke at – the environmental groups present approached IEI with a chance to cancel their “prize” if the company would make an urban plan and environmental impact statement for the pilot stage, but IEI did not accept this agreement, according to Halperin.

Shafir said that the company did not agree because the environmental organizations were asking that, before continuing with the pilot program, it would move to a “full plan” – which he said could mean waiting between seven to 10 years before being able to start the pilot stage.

The groups have a petition filed with the High Court asking that the project be forced to undergo this “full” urban planning process, and Shafir is confident the case will go in his favor.

Meanwhile, the letter sent to Steinhardt addressed how IEI is currently drilling onsite to examine the region’s oil shale layers and their suitability for oil production, as well as the company’s intentions to conduct a pilot experimental drilling project to produce oil from these layers, which would “examine the financial and environmental implications of commercial drilling.”

One of the first issues associated with the drilling that the letter brought up was that permission for the oil exploration was granted by the National Infrastructures Ministry, without the Environmental Protection Ministry’s involvement.

That ministry’s input was requested only “after the fact, following the granting of the license,” the letter asserts.

Shafir responded that “this is a misleading representation of the situation… Our license – as well as any other license ever granted under the Petroleum Law – was granted without the input of the Environment Ministry,” he said.

“However, the license is conditioned on obtaining all necessary approvals and permits and compliance with all laws and regulations, specifically with respect to environmental protection agencies and planning and zoning laws. The license gives the licensee the right to explore for oil – but any actions taken in the course of exercising these rights must be approved by all relevant authorities.

“The Ministry of the Environment served a prominent and active role in the process and has actively taken part in the choices of the sites,” he added, noting that other environmental institutions like the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Nature and Parks Authority were also involved.

But the signers continue to maintain that this is simply not true.

“They weren’t involved until about half a year ago, and, still, it was only about compliance,” Halperin said.

The letter next contended that oil shale production – which involves “heating subterranean layers to high temperatures for an extended time in order to convert solids into liquids and into extractable in situ gas” – is only “an experimental process” implemented in a few places throughout the world.

To this, Shafir argued that the process was actually invented in Sweden in 1940, where oil production persisted until 1964. Meanwhile, according to Shafir, seven programs have been conducted since then by Royal Dutch Shell in Colorado and in Alberta, Canada, where “pilots were carefully monitored for environmental impact and were issued the required permits.”

Halperin responded that none of those pilot projects were performed in preparation for a commercial scale project, and they used much different technology, in a place that is not geologically related to, say, Colorado or Sweden.

“The whole area is one of the most sensitive places in Israel,” she said.

The next point brought up in the letter was “the potential for significant, severe and in some cases irreversible environmental damage” caused by oil shale drilling.

Shafir criticized this claim for lacking supporting evidence, and said that “no adverse effects were found.” He explained that major obstacles that exist in America’s oil shale development – such as in Colorado, where an aquifer runs directly through the oil shale layer – do not exist where IEI is performing drilling, in the Shfela basin of the Adullam region.

“IEI is pursuing a methodical and cautious approach and is planning to do a small-scale, short-term pilot – whose sole purpose is to prove the technology prior to any further development,” Shafir continued.

The letter’s signers also expressed concerns that the drilling would disturb the ecological beauty of the Adullam region, noting that the area is “part of a unique ‘ecological corridor’ and cultural landscape designated for UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage site.”

Shafir, in turn, responded that the company has “no intention of pursuing commercial production” in this precise location, and that “the project footprint on land is minimal and will not harm the special value of the area.”

“We can’t see how those things can go together, and we know the Environment Ministry is as worried as we are,” Halperin objected, adding that if a commercial project is pursued elsewhere, the geological conditions could be different altogether.

The area where the commercial drilling would occur, Shafir then explained, has the “same geological characteristics” because it would be in the same huge, uniform basin as the pilot project – just in an area with a deeper surface.

A final worry expressed in the letter was that the use of “yet another, ultimately [depleting] source of polluting fossil fuel is being advanced under the banner of ‘Energy Independence for Israel.’” Shafir responded that such allegations can be addressed only after a successful pilot program has been conducted, but noted that “the oil shale reserves of Shfela hold more oil than Israel consumes in decades.”

“IEI’s technology may be able to develop this resource while protecting the environment and this unique and beautiful area,” he said. “The tremendous benefit to the State of Israel could not possibly be overstated.”

But to the environmental groups, oil is still oil – a harmful fossil fuel, according to Halperin.

“No matter what happens to this specific area, the result of this process is going to be something close to oil, a very polluting fossil energy,” she said. “Israel, like the rest of the world, is trying to transition over to other sources.”

Shafir suggested that the writers of the letter meet with the scientists involved in the project to discuss matters further, to which Halperin responded that they’ve already “met them dozens of times” and have invested time “learning their material.”

Steinhardt told the Post that he “stands by the company’s response” and had no further comment beyond what IEI had provided.