Environmental protection minister at SPNI confab: “There must be separation between permit giver and body that controls everything,”

While developing natural gas resources will be crucial to the economy, the government must take much greater care when doing so to prevent environmental disaster, experts agreed at a conference in the capital on Monday.

They gathered at the fifth Jerusalem Environment and Nature Conference, organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, held in the International Convention Center, and this year focusing on protecting the sea.

Without the sea, whose phytoplankton produces 50 percent of the atmosphere’s oxygen and 97 percent of the earth’s water, humans could not thrive, according to Dr.

Elliot Norse, founder and chief scientist of the US-based Marine Conservation Institute.

Therefore, ensuring that every precaution possible is taken to safeguard any natural gas or oil drilling operation from spillage and other disasters is critical, Norse said.

“Israel is very excited about discovering large deposits of natural gas and maybe oil offshore,” he said. “As an American I know that there are risks to drilling for petroleum offshore.”

Norse was a co-author on one of the first papers on the affects of the British Petroleum- Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster of 2010 – a spill that Norse described as “three times the size of Israel,” with an impact underneath the sea surface of the Gulf of Mexico that was even larger.

Although the United States had the infrastructure in place to deal with such a spillage, it ended up doing a very poor job, he explained.

“I hope you won’t make the mistakes that my country did as you look to your energy future,” he said.

Israel is already facing many other problems on its Mediterranean coast, as the changing marine environment has caused invasive species, such as certain jellyfish, to multiply and even clog power plants, Norse said.

“The Mediterranean is an indicator of the future,” he said, stressing that efforts to save the inland sea will show whether people can succeed in protecting the larger oceans around the world.

Dr. Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, added, “If we can fix the Mediterranean we can fix practically any sea in the world.”

While developing the natural gas industry is critical, this should not occur at the expense of the Mediterranean, and the Environmental Protection Ministry believes that there should be no leeway for mistakes, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said. Already, mistakes have been made hidden from the public eye in drilling more than 1.5 kilometers deep in the Leviathan basin, some 130 km. off the coast of Haifa, the minister said.

“[The] lessons learned in the Gulf of Mexico is that there must be a separation between the permit giver and the body that controls everything,” Erdan said.

Meanwhile, to prevent calamity, the government must provide more vessels for controlling the waters and for coping with the contamination that could fill the sea, he explained. Another problematic issue with protecting the Mediterranean is the fact that the Environmental Protection Ministry has no power to regulate in the waters where the Tamar (some 80 km. west of Haifa) and Leviathan reservoirs are, as these are in Economic Zone waters where normal on-land governing powers do not apply.

“I have no doubt that the gas and oil industry is important to the Israeli economy,” Erdan said. “The State of Israel and the Israeli government do not have a sufficient answer to protect the environment and Israeli citizens from anything.”

That said, however, Erdan stressed that no matter what his position would be following the January 22 election, he would carry the importance of protecting the sea and the environment at large into his next role.

“I don’t know where I will be in the next government – will I be a minister, or [even] be around? But after four years as minister I believe you can say that I understand the material better than I did,” Erdan said.

“I fell in love with the subject.

My mission will be to protect natural resources, and the matter will be with me wherever I will be.”