Liat Colllins 10/9/2014

Environmentalists say that searching for fossil fuels, such as the recently nixed oil-shale drilling project in the Elah Valley area, belongs to the past.

In an area where tradition holds that David fought Goliath, it is easy to use words like “epic” and “historic” when describing a battle, but this particular clash was a modern one, of far more modest proportions, and its significance lies in the future rather than the past.

At the beginning of September, in a decision that was dwarfed by other news in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building voted to reject the Shfela basin oil-shale pilot drilling project. Jerusalem-based Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI) has for years been trying to prove the viability of a project in this famed region in south-central Israel, a 45-minute drive from the capital.

The company, a subsidiary of the New Jersey firm Genie Energy, estimates that some 40 billion barrels of oil lie between 200 meters (650 feet) and 400 m. below the Elah Valley’s surface, “enmeshed among 70-million-year-old fossils,” as The Jerusalem Post’s environment reporter Sharon Udasin put it in a September 3 report. To produce it, IEI has developed its own method of inserting horizontal heaters into the kerogen-laced shale, accelerating the natural maturation process of the hydrocarbon-rich organic matter.

As Udasin noted, the pilot phase would have involved a single drilling site and production facility through which the company would extract 500 barrels of oil – about two barrels per day. If the pilot project had been successful, the project called for gradual progress to a full commercial phase, in which the company would have “drilled a production pipeline surrounded by a ring of in-situ heating wells, gradually heating the rock over the course of nine months to 300 degrees centigrade and thereby transform it into lightweight oil on site.”

Although considered a more gentle process than fracking, with which it is often confused, it would still result, even at the exploratory phase, in an eyesore in an area celebrated by hikers and cyclists for its pastoral, picturesque scenery. The view they enjoy includes many vineyards, which reflects the fact that among the ancient limestone hills lies a thriving wine and viniculture industry, far more aesthetic although less valuable than the oil industry that could literally undermine it.

Any project at the site will cause irrevocable damage beyond the actual drilling and heating process. No energy project, even a “green” one like solar energy, can avoid leaving an environmental footprint, even when the developers are trying to walk on tiptoes. A supporting infrastructure of roads will need to be built for trucks, for example. If the oil shale project was viable, it might provide a passing improvement to the country’s energy situation and provide a temporary economic boost, but it would be at the expense of forever altering the landscape of the Promised Land.

And not only did the biblical story of David and Goliath play out here. Not far away, even by the standards of this tiny country, is a spot considered the birthplace and tomb of Samson, the hero who was the last of the biblical judges. He surely deserves to rest in peace after all he suffered. Even if doubt can be cast over the veracity of Samson’s very old bones lying in this particular stone tomb, the area is not lacking in history. It is full of caves and tunnels put to good use when Jews battled Romans millennia ago.

The nearby Beit Guvrin National Park is recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site and is deservedly becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination.

IEI’s exploration license area reportedly includes Britannia Park, the Masua forest and all of Adullam Park – all of them treasured recreation sites.

Not surprisingly, the plan’s opponents include organizations such as Adam, Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Life and Environment umbrella organization of green groups.

Having invested so much money and energy into the exploratory work over more than a decade, IEI has not entirely given up its pipeline dreams of turning Israel into an oil shale superpower, liberating it, as the company sees it, from the whims of the traditional oil market, and developing the potential to export the technique and technology to other countries.

But the environmentalists note that carbon- producing fossil fuels belong to the past; the future should be based on cleaner and sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

As it is, no other country has used this particular technique of producing oil from shale and, in a region considered prone to earthquakes and with the project close to a groundwater reservoir, it is doubtful whether Israelis really want to be the guinea pigs, however safe the process is according to IEI officials. The consequences could be earth-shattering.

Naturally, the battle over energy supplies goes way beyond economics, especially in the Middle East. Especially in Israel.

The discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields off Israel’s coast in the Mediterranean has been considered a game-changer. Apart from freeing the country from dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas, it also offers Israel some leverage in creating new alliances with other countries, already evident to a certain extent with Cyprus, for example.

Nonetheless, the discovery of independent sources of oil and gas can also be the cause of tension and not just a solution to an energy problem. Turkey and Lebanon have both grown agitated over Israel’s new-found maritime gas supplies.

EXPLOITING THE land is more than a turn of phrase. The question is not only what you find but how you use it. There is another question, as deep as the shale and as old as the hills: Who owns natural assets? Should the ordinary people be left to benefit only from a trickle-down effect while big business concerns, well-oiled, enjoy substantial benefits? How the profits should be used has been the subject of much discussion concerning the country’s maritime gas discoveries. If spent wisely, they could help fund the development of clean, cost-effective, sustainable energy sources and technologies. There also needs to be a mechanism to ensure that the country’s natural assets aren’t sold to foreign interests further down the line.

Above all, we need to consider what we want to leave our grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. Apart from anything else, the Elah Valley holds a rare and endangered natural resource frequently overlooked in Israel – open space.

I am not the first to note that the shale and its possible exploitable oil is not going anywhere. If necessary, in years to come it could always be mined, probably with greater ease, using technologies and techniques not yet known.

Nixing the project was a bold move in a country that tends to deal with the here and now, with little regard for the future. Oil shale could be a get-rich-relatively- quick scheme whose repercussions will be felt and seen by future generations.

It’s time to take their needs into account.

To be a voice for the yet-to-be-born.

The Shfela case provides a precedent but it is not rock solid: IEI’s parent company, Genie Energy Ltd., is still battling environmentalists and residents in the North over plans for its subsidiary Afek Oil and Gas to drill for oil in a more conventional way in up to 10 exploratory wells in the Golan Heights, an area with high potential for less damaging and ever-lasting wind and solar energy.

At the end of September, the High Court of Justice issued an order for the temporary cessation of oil drilling activities in the Golan, granting the state more time to respond to petitions, but it’s too early to predict the outcome of this northern version of the David vs. Goliath story.

The Succot holiday that we are celebrating is marked by a return to basics and nature. Sitting in a temporary booth under palm-frond roofing, able to see the stars, we reconnect to the time we journeyed from Egypt across the desert and into the Promised Land. It’s one tiny country with a unique history; we need to be extra careful how we use it and in what condition we leave it for generations to come.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.