Oil tanker, Delek, contaminated fuel
Oil tanker truck leaves the airport after refueling aircraft, on May 5th, 2011. Photo by Ilan Assayag

1. In the very unnmerry month of May

The flight schedule at Ben-Gurion International airport had returned to near-normal by Friday afternoon, after a very unscheduled stop in aircraft refueling wreaked havoc with departures on Thursday, but the incident is far from over.

If one were forced to summarize the jet-fuel crisis of the past three days, it would go something like this: An unknown substance, from an unknown source and in unknown quantities, could have caused an unknown amount of damage, and as a result the use of jet fuel from Oil Refineries was suspended for an unknown period of time.

At first glance, this seemed like yet another case of localized contamination in the jet-fuel supply line to Ben-Gurion, after similar cases in May 2000 and, bizarrely enough, in May 2005. The latter turned out to be caused by bacterial contamination in storage tanks or the supply pipeline, the result of faulty maintenance.

Over the weekend, scientists at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona reversed their original conclusion about the nature of the black gunk clogging the filters in the airport's fuel transport system, and now say that most of the unknown viscous liquid is from an inorganic source - and thus unlikely to point to bacterial contamination.

2. Unidentified, or unidentifiable?

On Thursday TheMarker reported that in April drivers from the Egged bus cooperative had complained about an oily black goo that was clogging up the fuel filters in their gas tanks. Samples from Egged fuel pumps in Jerusalem, Holon and Ashdod were sent for testing and found to be normal, and as a result the incident was not reported to the National Infrastructure Ministry. The lab results for another suspect sample, taken two weeks ago in Haifa after another complaint, have not been issued.

Most alarming of all is the fact that the ministry's own test on diesel fuel samples from Egged revealed no anomalies. That means that the mystery guest in the country's fuel products is going unnoticed by the safeguards meant to protect Israel's energy supply until it builds up in sufficient quantities to be stopped by a physical obstruction: The relatively fine filters at the entry to the airport's fuel system. Does that mean that all of the country's jet-fuel supplies, or even all its stores of refined petroleum products, are tainted?

At this point we don't know whether there is a connection between the unidentified substance clogging up Egged bus fuel filters and the gunk on the airport's filters. But if there is, it means the contamination is taking place farther up the supply chain, at a Haifa or Ashdod refinery - or in crude oil or a petroleum derivative being imported into Israel, and is not being identified during the intake process.

In 2000, Ashdod taxi drivers began complaining that their Mercedes-Benz cabs were stalling after they filled up. The problem was eventually traced back to a delivery of diesel fuel from Romania that was missing a critical chemical component, and whose absence was not flagged by the tests performed on all imported diesel fuel. The delicate digestive systems of the German-made cars were presumably more sensitive to the quality of their fuel diets.

3. Who's to blame?

One of the problems of this incident, during which Israel was effectively isolated physically from the outside world for long hours, is that there is no obvious locus of responsibility for the mess. On the face of it, everyone did their job properly:

The fuel was tested before leaving Oil Refineries facilities, and found to meet all standards.

Aviation Assets, the company that is responsible for fuel supply and delivery at the airport, dutifully provided fuel samples for laboratory testing.

Finally, as soon as the problem came to light, the airport grounded all outgoing flights rather than take a chance that the tainted fuel could harm the aircraft and potentially cause accidents.

There will be many more questions to ask - about testing standards and protocols, as well as broader questions about the nation's energy security and about ownership in the energy sector - even after the German lab issues its findings.