August 19, 2017 05:00
Citizens of northern Israel campaign against the proximity of natural gas facilities to the coastline.

A fierce battle is being waged in the north of Israel. It’s a battle that has been joined late ‒ possibly too late, say some ‒ by residents of the beautiful Carmel coast and adjacent areas. It’s a battle pitching the might and financial muscle of the Netanyahu government, allied with powerful international energy companies and lobbyists, against local residents of the Mediterranean strip, which will soon become the site of the natural gas energy boom on which Israel’s economy may become increasingly reliant in years to come.

This is a story, if you’ll pardon the nautical pun, that is hard to fathom. A tale of what should be a bonanza and celebration for the State of Israel and its people, but, due to apparent subterfuge, misinformation and bizarre reasoning, could potentially become a major ecological disaster. It may impact negatively on the health of many hundreds of thousands of people who had assumed, until very recently, that all was being done to develop the gas fields with the public’s best interests at heart.

“Why,” ask objectors to new plans for developing the Leviathan gas field off the Carmel coast, “have proposals for up to 16 130-meter high, massive gas platforms been changed from siting them 120 km from shore for safety, efficiency and security reasons to as little as seven to 10 km from shore?” There is no doubt they will be an ugly blot on the landscape. When you look out from the hillside town of Zichron Ya’akov and gaze from the seashore to the horizon, it is a distance of approximately 32 km. The platforms will stand around a quarter of the distance out to sea, far too close by almost all calculations and international norms.

The fumes, say those opposing the plan, will drift with the sea breezes onto the population of the region, posing a significant health risk.

They note the already shockingly high numbers of breathing-related illnesses and cancers in the nearby Haifa region that are attributed to noxious fumes belching from the petrochemical plants of the Haifa Bay.

The development of the gas field close to land is set to eventually span a distance from south of Haifa Bay to Netanya where another 16 gas platforms in addition to the original 16 of the first phase are proposed, something that appears to have not yet been fully communicated to those who will eventually be affected.

But of even more concern in the new plan is the decision to process highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic condensate, a valuable natural gas byproduct, on land at the Hagit power station between Zichron Ya’akov and Yokneam. It will be piped to the shore under extreme pressure, emerging at the stunning Dor beach before being piped on to Hagit. Objectors, including residents of Dor and the adjacent beach at Nahsholim, say most gas-producing countries are not prepared to run the risk of processing condensate close to population centers and prefer to do so out at sea, limiting the potential danger to their citizens. Not so, Israel, it appears.

So why take a chance when such a risk seems unnecessary? The Leviathan gas fields and their main developers, US-based Noble Energy and the Israeli firm Delek and its subsidiaries (owned by local billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva), have invested and risked huge amounts of money and rightly stand to benefit ‒ along with the State of Israel itself ‒ from a natural gas field worth many tens of billions of dollars over the next few decades, assuming gas prices don’t collapse.

“The important thing now is not to delay,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting on May 22, 2016. He called what was then a revised new plan, “a very important – even historic step for the Israeli economy and especially the Israeli people.”

The size of the gas field was downgraded from original estimates of 620 billion cubic meters of gas to 500 billion by the government in the spring of 2016. An alleged cover- up by the government of the economics of the gas deal was given as one of the main reasons for Environmental Protection minister Avi Gabbay ‒ very recently elected as the new chairman of the Labor party ‒ resigning from his role and leaving coalition partner Kulanu. Might Gabbay, in his new role, step up to add weight to those opposing the new plans? “IT TURNS out that for two years the ministry knew and concealed that there was 20% less [gas] than was reported to the cabinet and public,” [Gabbay] wrote on Facebook, i24News reported on June 5, 2016.

“It’s no longer a matter of right and left, those in favor and those against the deal, but rather it’s about how the government handles matters.”

The Citizens Coalition that has emerged late in the day to fight the development in its current form, told me they favor the production and exploitation of Israel’s natural gas resources and appreciate the improved relations they will bring with regional neighbors such as Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and others. Comprising both Jewish and Arab residents in the affected area, the Coalition agrees that gas is a more eco-friendly energy source than coal or oil, for example; it has no argument with the government or energy companies on that score.

They are happy for the Leviathan and other adjoining gas fields situated in Israel’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) to be developed out at sea, much closer to the source of the gas itself, using FPSO (Floating, Processing, Storage and Offloading) barges that are the industry standard around the world due to their cost effectiveness and ability to have as little environmental impact as possible.

FPSO was proposed by both Noble and Delek as recently as the summer of 2015, before revised plans were seemingly drawn up in the aftermath of legal wrangling that left the development of the gas fields in limbo for around three years. Indeed, Delek’s own website still displays their original plans for using FPSO. It was, as far as anyone could understand, the agreed way forward.

But something inexplicably changed. The FPSO plans have been scrapped and the alternative piping across to the gas platforms up to 100 km away and close to the Carmel shore, have been put in place instead. Why? No one has provided a meaningful answer.

Only Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, seen by many as Netanyahu’s right-hand man, and Bibi himself really know the answer and they have failed, thus far, to give a satisfactory explanation.

“The FPSO was the original solution offered by Noble Energy and this is something that is acceptable,” Moti Klinger, head of the Composite Materials Department at Haifa’s Technion University and a member of the Citizens Coalition, tells The Jerusalem Report. “This is the solution of today, 2017. Almost nobody in the world is using the [gas platforms] any more. This is old technology. It is dangerous and pollutes near the shore. The trend these days is to do it as close as possible to the gas field.

“If you look at the solution offered by Energean, which had the right under its agreement to use [gas platforms], it has chosen the FPSO solution and said that this is a cheaper and faster solution giving better gas prices to the Israeli market.”

So, I sought out Energean to understand why the Greek-based company that is developing the Tanin and Karish gas fields adjacent to Leviathan propose to use FPSO, contrary to the new and controversial plan of the Leviathan developers, which is being promoted by the Israeli government.

Energean was perfectly happy to take my unscheduled call and explain its reasoning.

“Using FPSO demands only minimal onshore installations and our [FPSO] vessel will be about 90 kms. away from the shore so it is something that won’t be visible, you cannot hear it, there is no other interaction with the activity in the local areas or habitats. These were our main reasons,” said Sotiris Chitakis, Energean’s media spokesman.

Its plans, submitted in mid-June 2017, have been warmly welcomed by those opposing the new proposals to develop the Leviathan field close to shore and bring the condensate onshore ‒ support that is clearly important to Energean.

“We hope to have [the Israeli public] on our side during the development of the fields. As you may have seen in our press release, we mentioned that all petrochemicals can be easily exported away from the source so there is no need to take them other ways. I hope they will stay on our side as time goes by.”

I wondered whether Energean was concerned it might be put under any pressure by the Israeli government to fall in line with the new plan for developing Leviathan? “We have just submitted our plan,” said Chitakis. “We will wait for feedback, so I think it is pretty early to say if they agree 100 percent or if they have some different or additional views. I do not see any reason that they would have a different opinion, at least on the general idea and on the parameters of the details.”

NEXT STOP was Noble Energy. The Israeli telephone number displayed on their website turned out to be unobtainable, so I called their head office in Houston, Texas, a number of times but failed to reach their spokesperson. A few days later I received a call from an Israeli public relations agency representing Noble Energy. They preferred not to answer questions by phone or in person, but were happy for me to submit questions by mail, which I did.

I posed nine detailed questions relating to the change of plan, the ditching of the FPSO method, cost and safety issues, the implication of potential legal action by the Citizens Coalition, etc. Forty-eight hours later, I received the following statement from Fleisher Communications, on behalf of Noble Energy: “The development plan approved by the Ministry of Energy on 02.06.2016, [June 2, 2016] will deliver natural gas to the Israeli market and to neighboring countries before the end of 2019. The Leviathan Production Platform is located 10 km offshore on the edge of the continental shelf and within the area approved by the National Planning Committee’s National Outline Plan 37H. The platform is designed to the highest safety and environmental standards and will provide a reliable supply of natural gas that, in addition to strengthening the country’s energy security, will provide the people of Israel with a clean-burning natural gas that will replace coal and improve our air quality and the health of our children for generations to come.”

On the face of it, it sounds great, but in line with governmental and corporate videos on the subject there was no real detail in the statement. Direct answers to most of my points appear to have been deliberately avoided. Again, what is there to hide? A day later, on June 29, a meeting of representatives of Noble Energy ‒ not its PR company ‒ members of the Citizens Coalition, and Ziv Deshe, the head of the Zichron Ya’akov council, took place in Israel. Present at this meeting was Omri Dotan, a hi-tech entrepreneur who is one of the main organizers of the Coalition campaign.

Contrary to expectations going into the meeting, Noble Energy, initially, proved forthcoming.

“We understood that the government has sold us out against the interests of Noble Energy, which wanted our solution [of establishing the platform 120 km offshore],” Dotan told The Report. “Noble Energy won’t be able to support the fight to change the placement of the platforms because it would take billions of dollars and many years to re-plan, something they don’t have the appetite to do.”

Apparently, Noble Energy gave the initial impression at the meeting that it would cooperate with the Citizens Coalition to prevent the building of any containers or any entry of condensate to Israel via a straightline pipe connection, “but subsequent to that meeting,” Dotan suggested, “I am not sure that is now the case.”

Noble Energy seems to have suggested that the government, in the shape of Steinitz, had forced this change of plan on the company against its better judgement. It also emerged, however, that Nobel Energy has had only one previous experience of using FPSO (in an oil project off the coast of Africa), one possible reason for them not opposing too strongly the change in plan.

On the other hand, this major international company with decades of experience in the industry seemingly appreciated the Coalition’s fears that transporting and storing the condensate via an onshore pipeline to Hagit carries with it significant dangers.

It comes as no surprise that Noble Energy may have the jitters over the new plans for the condensate.

In April 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the State of Colorado reached a $4.95 million settlement and ordered Noble to spend a further $4.5m. on environmental mitigation projects because of its “alleged past violations of Regulation 7, Section XII requirements relating to installation, operation, maintenance, design, and sizing of vapor control systems at condensate storage tanks.” A growing number of regional councils have joined the fight to halt the revised plans to develop Leviathan, and it appears there is momentum behind their calls for changes to be made.

“THE ZICHRON Ya’akov Local Council strongly opposes the plan for establishing gas platforms in such close proximity to its shores and the proposed condensate facility at the Hagit site,” Deshe tells The Report. “Israel’s Health Ministry and Environmental Protection Ministry consider condensate to be a highly flammable, toxic and volatile substance. [We see] the current plans as a major health risk to all residents in their vicinity.

“[We are] collaborating with the Citizens Coalition, to find a solution to this issue … the council will transfer funds to support the cause. In addition, the council has been negotiating with government officials, including MKs, the ministers of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee of the Knesset to adjust the plans and push the gas platforms further into the sea. The Council also joined the Megiddo Regional Council’s petition to the Supreme Court against the condensate facility in Hagit.

“Even if we blindly accept the assertions that condensate is a safe fuel that poses no actual risk to the environment or to the health of the community in its close vicinity, there is still a major health risk as a result of a potential malfunction or the possibility that the facilities and platforms will become a strategic target in case of war or missile attacks. Neither the government, nor the gas companies have reassured us about dealing with such horrific scenarios,” Deshe adds.

Subsequent to Deshe’s statement, it was confirmed that the local councils of Fureidis, Megiddo, Alona and Daliat al-Carmel have officially joined the fight.

Others, such as Or Akiva and Netanya, may add their weight to the struggle to stop the gas development in its current form.

One of the few regional councils to refuse to join the campaign is, surprisingly, Hof Hacarmel (the Carmel Coast), which successfully fought off an earlier attempt to develop the gas fields and whose current indifference to the new proposals has left many in the region bemused. A growing number of Hof Hacarmel residents, however, have joined the Citizens Coalition.

On July 9, 2017, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that potential threats to the gas project had warranted a further purchase of defensive weapons systems at a cost of 1.5 billion shekels ($420m.), but the wording of his statement raised more than a few eyebrows.

“These procurement transactions,” said Liberman, “are for the good of the economic water project ‒ the project in which the IDF will protect the gas rigs, and it is extremely significant for the state’s defense and security.”

This statement appears to directly contradict Steinitz’s assertion that the gas platforms will be no more than 10 km from the Carmel shore. Liberman’s assertion that the new weapons system will protect the rigs in Israel’s economic waters ‒ which begin 44 km offshore ‒ might suggest either confusion about the gas rig issue among different government ministries, or the deliberate highlighting of a potential change of plans.

Ongoing protests are set to take place on weekends at major road junctions in the Carmel coast region, with Jewish and Arab residents, along with some Druze from the nearby towns of Usfiya and Daliat al-Carmel, standing together to protest the revised gas development proposals.

There is a feeling among many locals that something distinctly unpalatable is being hatched by their own government. They fear the state is rushing to get its hands on gas revenues without paying sufficient attention to the dangers they may be foisting on countless people ‒ some of whom have lived in the area for generations and others who have moved to the area to enjoy the stunning environment and raise their families as proud semi-rural Israelis.

Objectors hope the Israeli courts, which have time and again robustly proved their judicial independence in recent years ‒ convicting a former president, prime minister and chief rabbi ‒ will at least put the brakes on current plans to allow more time for in-depth assessments of the potential dangers posed by the development of the Leviathan gas field in its current form and the proper voicing of concerns about the project to be heard.

The government may believe it has already closed the book on any objections or obstacles to the gas coming on stream in the second half of 2019 through the resolution of the previous impasse in the Leviathan saga, but it may well have a new fight on its hands, one that is only just beginning.

With that in mind, it appears no coincidence that the latest fundraising effort from the Citizens Coalition is a charity screening of the Oscar-winning movie “Erin Brockovich,” the story of the 1993 campaign against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s poisoning of the environment that was successfully fought by a group of US citizens who triumphed against all odds.