Project was aiming to prove usability of approximately 40 billion barrels of oil found in te shale rock layer of the Shfela basin in south-central Israel.

Just before the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building is set to discuss the fate of a pilot oil shale drilling project on Monday, the Environmental Protection Ministry this weekend slammed the plans as environmentally destructive.

The project in question is that of Jerusalem- based Israel Energy Initiatives, which has long been aiming to prove the usability of approximately 40 billion barrels of oil found in the shale rock layer of the Shfela basin in south-central Israel. The company, a subsidiary of the New Jersey firm Genie Energy, completed the exploratory stage of its project in 2011 but has faced delays reaching the pilot stage, due to both environmental opposition and changes in regulation.

Reiterating that the drilling will not harm the environment, IEI and a series of geologists have long maintained that an impermeable, 200-meter layer of rock separates the shale from the region’s aquifer, and that drilling will entail on-site, underground oil-heating.

The pilot phase would consist of one drilling site and production facility in a portion of IEI’s license zone, through which the company would aim to extract 500 barrels of oil – about 2 barrels per day. Only after successful completion of a pilot program could a demonstration phase followed by a full commercial phase even begin to move forward, the company stressed.

Despite IEI’s guarantees that the project will cause no environmental damage, the company has faced opposition along the way, due to the fact that its technology has yet to be proven effective anywhere in the world. In August 2010, Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) filed a High Court petition arguing that the technology has not been proven effective, and yet is subject only to the archaic 1952 Petroleum Law, which lacks certain environmental constraints associated with other building plans.

By April 2012, the Energy, Water and National Infrastructure Ministry issued regulations that tightened construction guidelines and environmental procedures for such projects, but still did not subject the plans to the country’s planning and building laws – which has disappointed Adam Teva V’Din and led the group to file further High Court petitions.

In preparation for the Monday Jerusalem District Committee meeting, during which the fate of the pilot project may be determined, the Environmental Protection Ministry said its staff members had examined the documents submitted to them by the project’s developers, and have concluded that “there is no need to implement the project.”

The ministry representatives said they feel that the drilling would cause the region irreversible damage.

No such oil production is occurring anywhere else in the world, and a substantial lack of information in the environmental impact assessment prevents the ministry from granting an informed approval, ministry officials said.

The project, the Environment Ministry said, is likely to contaminate the groundwater, the soil and the surrounding environment, certainly in the production stage and possibly even in the pilot stage.

“We cannot agree to a process whose final results we all know will be severe, to the environment and to the people living in it, and certainly the destruction of one of the most beautiful and significant places in Israel,” Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz said.

Promoting the oil shale production plan contradicts the government’s policies for promoting oil alternatives in transportation and for reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the ministry added.

In response to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s statements on the subject, IEI declared that “the opinion in question must be rejected, as it is irrelevant to the subject that it is [supposed to] deal with, and unreasonable in its findings and arguments.” The company slammed the ministry for focusing much more on the commercial stage of the project than on the pilot phase.

Regarding the claims of insufficient information, IEI explained that the Environmental Protection Ministry had insisted that the company submit an environmental impact assessment that only addresses the potential location of the pilot project, and not additional chapters that examined other environmental issues.

The company criticized the ministry for filing the opinion very late, 25 days after the date it was required to do so by law and three working days before the committee meeting.

In addition, IEI representatives said that the ministry failed “to employ professional consultants that fully understand the geology, hydrology and physics of the technology and the resource,” citing several errors made in the opinion.