“Air pollution is not a matter of convenience and quality of life, but of health and life.”
While increasing gas use in the country’s factories and vehicles would lead to dramatic improvements in air quality, the “prohibitive price” of the resource will make such a transition difficult, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay told a Knesset panel on Wednesday.

“Air pollution is not a matter of convenience and quality of life but of health and life,” Gabbay said. “Natural gas as a source of energy production can reduce pollution by 99 percent.”

The minister was addressing the Economic Affairs Committee Wednesday morning, during the seventh of a series of final advisory discussions that are a prerequisite toward implementing the country’s long-disputed natural gas outline. In his presentation, Gabbay looked at how the natural gas issue plays a role in three fields under his responsibility: air pollution, the marine environment and sustainability and energy security.

Gabbay was the only government minister to vote against the gas deal, which received required cabinet approval in August and additional Knesset backing in September.

Despite the government approval, fully activating the outline now requires that the economy minister invoke a legal clause to sidestep the Antitrust Authority’s objections – Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law (the Antitrust Law). To do so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who replaced former economy minister Arye Deri in early November – must first consult with the Economic Affairs Committee.

Gabbay’s presence at the Economic Affairs Committee consultations has been riddled with controversy over the past week.

On Monday, the Attorney- General’s Office banned Gabbay from specifically testifying against the gas plan during his Wednesday appearance.

Although Gabbay voted against the outline at the August cabinet meeting, the Attorney-General’s Office explained in a letter that legally, all ministers are responsible for cabinet decisions.

The letter, written by Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein’s aide Asaf Harel to cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, came after Netanyahu instructed Gabbay not to speak out against the plan in the Economic Affairs Committee.

Briefly addressing this issue at the beginning of his presentation, Gabbay stressed that ever since he was invited to appear before the committee, he has not even considered refusing.

“This is a required consultation process in a field relevant to my position, and in a democracy, when the executive authority is summoned for explanations and information provision in the legislative body, he arrives,” he said.

“Unfortunately, my very participation here became an event,” he continued. “In my eyes, participation is natural as a public servant. The information under my authority belongs to the public, and therefore I refused to accede to all requests not to attend.”

Turning back to the issues he was permitted to discuss, Gabbay first lamented how the government has still “not managed to turn natural gas into a product that changes the face of the country and the level of air pollution.”

Despite the resource’s huge potential, the Israel Electric Corporation still prioritizes coal use, due to its cost, while much of heavy industry is still turning to fuel oil for the same reason, he said. Heavy transportation, meanwhile, depends largely on diesel, he added.

“The price of gas in Israel today is a prohibitive price,” Gabbay said. “This will make the transition to gas at the IEC, in factories and in transportation difficult.”

Looking at natural gas’s relationship to the marine environment, he discussed how gas and oil drilling can pose enormous risks, and that it is only possible to minimize, rather than entirely prevent, such threats. Leakage of gas from wells, for example, could occur in currents that run close to desalination plants that provide water to Israelis, he said.

Regarding the small gas basins Karish and Tanin, which would be sold to new companies if the gas outline is activated, Gabbay questioned whether it is even wise to develop those fields right now.

“Should you develop these very small fields now, which will triple the environmental hazards, or instead save the fields as a reserve for the future?” he asked.

Shifting to his final area of focus, Gabbay discussed sustainability and energy independence and the need to ensure that Israel does not end up in a situation of energy shortage.

“In this respect, it is important to understand the source of a conflict of interest between companies that have found gas and the state, any state,” he said.

“The gas companies want to sell the gas as soon as possible, even at a very reduced price. The state wants security that it will have energy for years to come.”

Establishing a domestic market alone is not worthwhile financially for the companies, but exporting also involves risks, Gabbay explained. For example, drilling wells could collapse due to expedited pumping, or mistakes could occur in assessing reservoir quantities, Gabbay explained.

“The gas companies are doing what is financially lucrative for them within the boundaries that a sovereign state has placed for them,” he said. “Still, as someone who has dealt with regulatory issues for 20 years, I know that in this current campaign boundaries have been crossed, and we are already not in the same state.”

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.