Israel’s offshore oil and gas production are well underway; but on environmental protection, Israel is playing catch up with the world.
By Zafrir Rinat | Dec. 26, 2013

Governmental officials scrambled to a Knesset discussion on drilling “like students who always remember at the last moment that they have homework and that they must do it very quickly,” said leading environmentalist Maya Jacobs. The director of Zalul Environmental Association said the representatives of various ministries were entirely unprepared to talk about how Israel is responding to the threat of disaster from offshore oil and gas production.

The Knesset’s State Control Committee met two weeks ago in the wake of the report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, who pointed out various failures in the government’s preparedness to deal with the environmental impact of offshore oil and gas operations. As the date of the discussion was drawing near, the Justice Ministry distributed the draft text of a proposed bill on maritime zones that is intended to regulate Israel’s oil and gas fields. A few days earlier, after a prolonged delay, the Energy and Water Resources Ministry published protection guidelines for drilling.

Green organizations in Israel are concerned about the new era in offshore oil and gas and they have good reason. Even with large-scale exploration and production already underway, the legal and logistical infrastructure to address potential environmental damage is not yet in place.

Israel Union for Environmental Defense, another green nonprofit, says the proposed bill on maritime zones does not specify that Israel’s existing construction and planning laws will apply to such zones. Without such a clause, there can be no proper protection for Israel’s territorial waters, the environmental organization warns.

The findings of the state comptroller buttress the fears of the environmental groups. Shapira has determined that there is a chronic lack of coordination between the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Energy and Water Resources Ministry. The latter ministry has yet to draft principles for receiving guarantees from oil and gas exploration companies to cover instances of environmental damage. The licenses issued to these companies at present do not specify the operational and security standards.

Zalul recently studied a European Union directive on offshore oil and gas operations and compared it with Israel. Ratified this year, the directive sets strict standards for drilling and establishes a clear separation of powers between agencies charged with environmental safety and protection and agencies responsible for the development of offshore economic activities. Entrepreneurs shoulder the full responsibility for implementing disaster-prevention measures and doing the clean-up if they fail. Third-party supervision is mandated at all stages of planning and implementation in oil and gas drilling activities.

By contrast, Israel has no strict general guidelines. Instead, each drilling project is evaluated separately. There is no mandated separation between the various agencies involved in offshore oil and gas operation. Drilling companies have only a limited responsibility over disaster prevention. There is no third-party supervision. There is nothing that says new drilling must take into account national disaster preparedness.

The Energy and Water Resources Ministry says Zalul is biased and its report is full of inaccuracies. According to the ministry, a clause in the EU directive permits exemption from the separation of powers between the various agencies if the number of drillings is small (less than six). The ministry says this is the current situation in Israel as well. Similarly, the European Union has determined that a supervising agency can consist of one or several public bodies.

The ministry also argues that it does demand, as a matter of principle, the use of advanced technology for dealing with environmental hazards and obligates all oil and gas exploration companies to accept third-party supervision, giving as an example, the Tamar offshore natural gas rig. In addition, the ministry demands the companies carry insurance totaling three to five times the cost of the drilling activities, as is the accepted practice in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, the drilling companies are required to belong to an international organization that provides mutual assistance in the event of environmental disasters. Regarding the missing link between national preparedness and drilling operations, the ministry’s spokespersons have passed the responsibility on to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The environmental directives issued by the Energy and Water Resources Ministry this month are intended to generate responses from the public. They relate to every stage of activity – from explorations to production to the eventual abandonment of the offshore rig.

The directives specifies that exploration companies must provide an environmental impact report and outline prevention and damage control measures. In addition, the companies must create contingency programs for dealing with oil spills.

How prepared is Israel for dealing with oil and gas spills? The Environmental Protection Ministry announced in the course of the discussion before the State Control Committee it has made the necessary preparations for activating stations in Haifa and Ashkelon that would deal with malfunctions or spills . But Zalul says the government must beef up its disaster response array, by getting more experts equipment, and vessels.

Which is going to be the higher priority – the Defense Ministry asking for billions of dollars to protest the gas fields from attacks, or the Environmental Protection Ministry with a budget that never broke $20 million?