Israel’s energy minister, who promised to suspend gas exploration for a year, says global crisis marks need to export natural gas — to the dismay of environmental groups

Tamar gas field, off the coast of Israel, this year.
Tamar gas field, off the coast of Israel, this year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel Fisher May. 31, 2022

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar announced on Monday that she would approve renewing exploration for natural gas in Israel’s Mediterranean waters — just six months after committing to suspending any drilling for a year.

Elharrar and Energy Ministry Director General Lior Schillat attributed the turnaround to the war in Ukraine, which caused the ministry to reconsider the situation. The new policy is in line with calls being made by energy companies to drill and enable Israel to export more gas.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on the Russians in response have exposed the degree to which Europe is reliant on Russian gas, arousing fears of an energy crisis.

The energy industry justified their decision by emphasizing the need to find new gas reserves and enable Israel to export to Europe. However, environmental organizations are calling on Elharrar not to renew drilling because the environmental damage would be greater than the economic benefits of gas exports, according to them.

Last December, Elharrar declared at a renewable energy conference that she was suspending gas exploration in Israel for one year in order to focus on renewable energy. She is now directing her staff to prepare for a fourth round of competitive bidding for exploration licenses “in view of the war in Ukraine and its impact on natural gas supplies to the European continent.”

“We and the Europeans agree on the fact that the most strategic way to address the current crisis is by accelerating the development of renewable energy. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the global need for natural gas both in the immediate and medium terms,” Schillat said. “The Europeans have been quite clear in saying that if they don’t locate substitute sources for the natural gas they need, many members of the European Union will be forced to resume using coal to generate electricity,” adding that natural gas also played an important part in strengthening ties between Israel and Egypt and its impact on Israel’s geopolitical status in the Middle East.

To date, Israel’s Energy Ministry has conducted three auctions for exploration licenses. A fourth was supposed to get underway in January 2021 but was delayed due to the unstable political situation.

According to Monday’s announcement, the terms for the next bidding round will be issued in the third quarter, which means in practice that no actual drilling will begin before 2023. That means that Elharrar can claim she held on to her word because the bidding process will only be completed after many months.

The background to the latest development came from reports that surfaced in January pointing to how the United States had withdrawn its support for the East Mediterranean gas pipeline, which would link Israel, Cyprus and Greece and deliver East Mediterranean gas to Europe. Therefore, if new reserves of gas are found in Israeli waters and there is no pipeline to ship it to Europe, Israel will have to increase gas exports to Egypt, which is able to liquefy the gas in order to reach Europe by ship.

But estimates are showing that the reserves of gas in the East Mediterranean are limited and can only provide Europe with a small fraction of its needs. However, it may enhance Israel’s geopolitical situation.

In addition, green groups are staunchly opposed to the renewal of drilling in the Mediterranean, asserting that it is not only destructive to the environment but isn’t economically viable. In March, Greenpeace demanded in a letter to Elharrar that she call a permanent halt to future exploration. “In the face of the climate-ecological emergency, the economic benefits of gas industry profits to the entirety of the Israeli public is debatable while the damage to the marine environment is irreversible.

“In view of the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine and the voices that have arisen in response to renewed natural gas development for export, we should remember that starting up gas production takes about a decade and during that time the situation is likely to change from end to end. Israel and the world must understand that the time has come to end the West’s reliance on [fossil] fuels and the whims of dictators and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy that is decentralized and based on renewable energy.”

Greenpeace termed Elharrar’s decision “scandalous” on Monday and said she had succumbed to pressure by the energy industry.

“To justify the change, she is misleading the public … For us to have a chance of preventing the worst effects of the climate crisis, we must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and halve them by 2030 – the immediate implication of Elharrar’s decision is that Israel will not meet its climate targets,” the organization said.