The scale of gas and oil drilling along Israel's coasts has expanded over the last year, and with it, the concerns of experts and environmental organizations over the expected environmental impact. What's happening today is not only deep-sea drilling relatively far from the coast, but also oil exploration just a few kilometers offshore.

The increased drilling has been accompanied by a significant rise in the number of both green and brown sea turtles arriving at the Turtle Rescue Center in Mevo'ot Yam, which is part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Both are considered endangered species. The turtles reach Mevo'ot Yam, in the Sharon region, after being found on the beaches in poor condition. The center treats them, and in many cases, returns them to the sea.

The rescue center's staff has no solid explanation for the dramatic rise in the number of injured turtles. But the leading theory, after several other possibilities were ruled out, is that the turtles are being exposed to harmful substances produced by oil exploration activities near the coast.

Concern over the impact of oil exploration on marine animals is based on accumulated experience around the world. Searching for oil entails using an airgun that fires very powerful sound waves at the seabed. By analyzing the data obtained from the sound wave echoes, it is possible to determine whether there are deposits of natural resources such as oil in the seabed.

Several recent studies have found evidence that airguns can negatively affect animals' behavior, and consequently harm their health. This year, for example, French and American scientists published the findings of a study that monitored the behavior of brown sea turtles near a ship using airguns off the coast of Algeria. The researchers found that almost half the sea turtles on the surface rushed to submerge underwater as they approached the oil search platforms, and some of them showed clear signs of panic.

Based on these findings, the scientists recommended that government agencies that approve oil searches set tougher requirements for environmental impact studies. They also noted that several countries, including Brazil and Canada, require companies to stop shooting sound waves into the water when there are turtles nearby.

Notably, the Algeria study did not find any turtles that suffered direct physical damage. But the researchers stressed that fear responses or behavioral changes in animals can also affect vital activities such as finding food.

In Israel, oil searches using airguns have recently been launched near the coast. Over the last few months, for instance, Gulliver Energy has conducted a seismic survey using this method in 51 square kilometers off the coast between Ga'ash and Beit Yannai. The company's activity there is scheduled to end in the next few weeks.

Gulliver Energy executives noted this week that they had not received any complaints of harm to animals or other environmental problems, and said the company's operations were coordinated with the Nature and Parks Authority.

One company official noted that airguns are initially fired at a low level, so that fish and marine mammals will be scared by the noise and leave the area being surveyed. Then the power level is gradually raised until the desired level is reached. In shallow-water surveys like the ones Gulliver Energy is conducting, he added, the airgun level is considerably lower than in deep-water surveys.

A shortage of manpower

But the possible impact on turtles and other animals are just one symptom of a broader problem faced by Israeli environmental organizations: a severe shortage of the funds and professional personnel needed to monitor the impact of oil and gas exploration and exploitation. Moreover, oil searches and commercial drilling projects are currently approved without being required to perform suitable environmental impact studies.

The greatest concern of organizations such as the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is that widespread oil pollution will ruin the coastal ecosystem, and also cause extensive financial damage to coastal infrastructure.

This week, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel held its annual environment and nature conference, which focused on the condition of the sea. At the conference, Nir Engert, director of the nature authority's development department, said that inadequate attention is given to environmental issues during the process of approving oil and gas drilling projects.

Rani Amir, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry's sea and coast division, presented a dismal picture of the situation at the conference. He said that ministry staffers know how to prepare for events such as oil spills, but lack the necessary manpower and budgets. A few weeks ago, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan warned the energy and water resources minister that Israel is unprepared to handle such pollution, and oil exploration and drilling is being promoted without any national-scale preparations being made for such eventualities.

Last month, officials from the environment ministry's planning division voiced their objections to the approval of additional projects to search for oil and extract it from the sea. They called for a moratorium until a national oversight system is set up to monitor such operations and preparations are made to handle oil seeping into the sea and reaching the coasts.

At this week's conference, the Energy and Water Resources Ministry presented the work it has done with the Environmental Protection Ministry to draft regulations to prevent environmental damage by oil and gas companies. Under these regulations, which are to receive final approval soon, companies will be required to survey the expected environmental impact of planned exploration and production facilities. In addition, they will have to continuously monitor the changes occurring in the areas adjacent to their facilities.