Leading environmentalists hold heated debate at the 2012 Israel Energy and Business Convention in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan.

A roundtable discussion among natural gas industry stakeholders on Sunday became heated as the parties argued over the benefits and risks of exporting the country’s new resource.

Environmental Protection Ministry director-general Alona Shefer-Karo argued that the country must wait to determine export amounts until it secures more concrete numbers on gas supply and demand.

Her colleagues in the industry said that would deter investors – and therefore development – in the offshore natural gas sector.

Shefer-Karo and her colleagues were participating in a dialogue about natural gas for export and for local use at the 2012 Israel Energy and Business Convention in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan.

“We should see exactly what the domestic market demands are, not estimates and manipulations,” Shefer-Karo said. “I’m not sure that everyone in this room understands that this is Israel’s only resource.”

Criticizing the recent report of the Zemach Committee, which recommended that no more than 500 billion cubic meters of gas be exported, Shefer- Karo said that the document exaggerated the supply of natural gas by 150 billion cubic meters. On Sunday morning, she had written a letter to Energy and Water Ministry director-general and committee head Shaul Zemach, demanding that the committee reconvene to reconsider its conclusions, she said.

By delaying decisions and waiting to know the exact amount of natural gas that will appear above ground, the country will lose investors interested in developing the industry here, argued Maj.- Gen. (res.) Amos Yaron, CEO of Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Co.

“Unfortunately, the Israeli government does not have the money to invest itself in developing these fields,” Yaron said. “We need to find different deals, the best deal possible, how to take this resource and make it one that can benefit Israel as a whole.”

The economy has already wasted NIS 20 billion in delaying getting the natural gas on tap, a mistake that the government cannot afford to repeat, according to Yossi Abu, CEO of Delek Drilling. Alongside Noble Energy, Delek Drilling and its subsidiary Avner Oil and Gas have the most significant stakes in the Tamar and Leviathan reservoirs off the coast.

“A country cannot allow herself to have this lack of governance and leadership even if the report is not liked by a certain ministry,” Abu said. “This uncertainty is killing the market. There won’t be a single investment in this market if there will be uncertainty.”

Abu stressed that he was calling upon the prime minister to make sure the report’s recommendations are implemented, after the committee took an entire year to issue them. That being said, while export is crucial to the industry, so too are developing domestic needs, he said. For example, injecting more natural gas into the Israel transportation industry and encouraging vehicles running on compressed natural gas is vital, Abu explained. Even if 50 percent of the transportation sector were to run on natural gas, however, the amount required would still be limited, he added.

“We are of course committed to the domestic market, but in order to supply to that market we need to develop more infrastructure,” Abu said.

Bini Zomer, director of corporate affairs at Noble Energy, agreed that despite the great need for natural gas in Israel, waiting months or years to determine exact export quantities could cost the country its entire gas industry.

“We argued that we don’t need to limit the quantity that should be exported, but I think what [the committee] did was make a decision that leaves enough gas for domestic use and also allows for an export industry to be set up,” Zomer said.

In response to the three men, two of whom – Abu and Yoram – had raised their voices during their arguments, Shefer-Karo retorted, “That’s three of you against one of me.”

“Let’s stop with these slogans,” she said. “Israel is not a superpower – we’re not a gas superpower.”

In a direct response to Shefer- Karo, but during a later panel discussion, Ron Chaimovski, chairman of Israel Natural Gas Lines, argued that “independence is not [just] a slogan and it is not something we can live without.”

“It is a necessity and it is a necessity that can be achieved,” Chaimovski said.

The heated debate continued to pervade other roundtables and speeches throughout the day, and during the last panel of the afternoon, Maj.-Gen. (res) Yom-Tov Samia of ICGreen Energy echoed Shefer- Karo’s sentiments.

“Israel should not export even a single billion cubic meter of natural gas,” Samia said. “In Israel there is natural gas in an uncertain quantity and most of the forecasts don’t come true.”

With export also comes the challenge of deciding how to transport the gas to buyers.

Typically the gas is transformed into liquefied natural gas, something that can be done on an on-shore facility or on a floating unit.

Yaron acknowledged that with such a facility on-shore in Israel, “of course the landscape will be hurt,” but said that the country could lose even more by failing to develop such a facility.

In Shefer-Karo’s eyes, there was absolutely no reason to “run ahead” with building such a production site on Israeli land.

“Israel is small, there is limited space,” she said. “What we’re saying is quite simple.”