Zafrir Rinat 11.07.2020

Government committee, not local councils, will approve construction of polluting industrial plants.

The Oil Refineries plant in Haifa Bay.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Environmental groups have called on the government to cancel planned legislative changes that would weaken environmental oversight and the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry as part of this year’s budget.

The legal changes included in the Economic Arrangements Bill – supplementary legislation to the annual budget – include transferring responsibility from local governments to a new governmental committee which could approve construction of industrial and energy facilities that are defined as having national importance but could cause environmental damage. Sovereignty Setback: Who Burst Bibi’s Annexation Bubble?Credit: Haaretz

The move will lead to “a long list of destructive effects,” said a joint statement released on Friday by 24 environmental organizations.

The construction of industrial and energy facilities sometimes runs into opposition from local governments, often over fear of environmental risks and hazards. The goal of establishing the new committee is to bypass these objections.

“The main fear is that the proposal will lead to a long list of destructive effects, the first of which is putting unprecedented authority in the hands of a small and centralized committee that can define the national interest of the State of Israel and as a result would harm public, environmental and health interests while ignoring the professional bodies responsible according to law for preserving them,” the statement reads.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has remained silent in recent days concerning the proposed changes, as has Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who promised to have an uncompromising position toward industrial polluters. Officials speaking on her behalf said she is acting on the matter and conducting negotiations with the Finance Ministry with the goal of changing the proposed law.

In recent years, the government has tried to promote a number of steps to “improve environmental regulation.” One initiative discussed was a combined licensing law whose goal would be to make the process of business licensing and permits more efficient. Other initiatives would have allow the government to quickly approve the construction of factories and other facilities.

After not being able to reach an agreement on these changes, the government is now trying to advance them through the Arrangements Bill, which will soon reach the Knesset for approval.

The purpose of the changes is to reduce the regulatory burden on receiving permits and building industrial plants, as well as reducing the costs of implementing standards and regulations. The bill states that it would create a balance between environmental benefits and economic costs.

Based on this principle, the bill offers a long list of ways to make it easier for factories to implement clean air laws and other environmental regulations. One change makes it harder to add new conditions when renewing pollution permits. Factory owners would also be given more flexibility in making decisions about what technologies to use to prevent polluting emissions.

The bill also proposes cutting Environmental Protection Ministry fines for violating the conditions of business licenses in half.

The ministry has used these fines extensively in recent years, and they is considered to be particularly effective against violations such as failure to report hazards or not providing local governments with up-to-date information. The environmental groups said this change would seriously damage the ministry’s deterrence and weaken environmental oversight as well as the ministry’s ability to carry out its job.

Another proposed change would cancel the need for Environmental Protection Ministry approval for major changes in industrial plants. These include changes in the production process and which technology is used, which also affect the plants’ emissions. According to the bill, such facilities would only need to submit an announcement of the changes in advance.

According to the state, this change, along with the plants’ ability to choose which technology to use to prevent pollution, is in line with the European Union’s regulations on preventing air pollution.