The Tamar well
The Tamar well Photo by Albatross Aerial Photography
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Moti  Kimche
Enviroment Minister Erdan, left, and Energy Minister Landau. Photo by Moti Kimche

Benjamin Netanyahu is considering merging the energy and environment ministries immediately after the January 22 election if he remains prime minister as expected, sources say.

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment, but the idea of combining the two ministries was raised by none other than the ministers themselves: Gilad Erdan at the Environmental Protection Ministry and Uzi Landau at Energy and Water Resources.

"There is an apparent inherent conflict between the ministries," Landau said. "If decision-making is to be balanced and not delay development, the ministries need to be headed by one minister." Erdan has said he agrees with Landau.

Actually, the Finance Ministry once considered breaking the Energy and Water Resources Ministry up and creating an energy authority to oversee water, natural gas and electricity resources. In any case, it's unclear whether the political landscape after the election will make it possible to eliminate a cabinet post.

There has been major friction in recent years between the environment and energy ministries, particularly regarding drilling for oil and natural gas. The energy ministry, which oversees drilling, has pushed for drilling on land and offshore, while the environment ministry wants to supervise drilling, concerned about the environmental impact.

The biggest dispute arose over approval for a natural gas pipeline from the Tamar underwater drilling site. The energy ministry pressed for the plan favored by U.S. company Noble Energy, which operates Tamar; a pipeline would run near Dor on the coast south of Haifa. But the environment ministry argued that the state should plan the pipeline's route to take environmental concerns into account.

The two ministries also sparred over the use of heavy fuel oil and diesel fuel by the Israel Electric Corp. to generate electricity due to the shortage of natural gas, even though these fuels cause more pollution.

The energy ministry urged the electric company to go easy on natural gas, which became scarce after Egypt cut off supplies to Israel. But the environment ministry said it was never even approached about alternatives to natural gas to generate electricity.

Sources at the environment ministry have said the energy ministry's main interest is to promote drilling for energy resources, saying an independent entity should supervise drilling, not the energy ministry. In response, the energy ministry recruited an environment ministry official to set environmental standards for drilling, with drillers required to post guarantees to fund any environmental damage caused by mishaps.

In another instance, the energy ministry opposed the appointment of environment ministry people to the Energy Ministry Petroleum Council, though in the end these people were added. Recently the two ministries have been at odds over future exports of natural gas. Recommendations by a panel headed by the Energy Ministry's director generalprompted the Environment Ministry to submit an opposing minority opinion.