Drilling for natrual gas in the Mediterranean Sea.
Drilling for natrual gas in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Albatross
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Two groups who warn Israel's coastline is in danger of being destroyed say they have the solution to salvage it. The Zalul Environmental Association and the Department of Marine Geosciences at Haifa University say the government can save our seas and shores from ecological disasters that might otherwise be inevitable, if it streamlines its authority over them. Thus, they have come up with a joint initiative to establish a single government body that will determine policy and oversee sea and shore activities, with an eye toward averting negative environmental consequences and preserving our natural resources. Government authority in this area is now split between land and sea, and spread among different ministries.

"We are currently mapping the authorities upon which to base a sea and shore office," says attorney Nadia Mogilevsky of Haifa University. The authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry branch that is now responsible for many of these areas is rather limited. It can act to enforce sea pollution laws but it has no power to determine policy."

The new proposal suggests creating an umbrella body for pollution prevention, supervision of fishing and overseeing of water quality; currently these fall under the responsibility of the Ministries of Environmental Protection, Agriculture, and Health, respectively. "This doesn't mean that these departments must be moved to the [new] authority, but that it would supervise them," Mogilevsky says.

The idea of an independent new agency prompts concerns from critics, however, that it would be vulnerable to pressure from parties who might have political or economic reasons to interfere with its decisions. Haifa University staffers and members of Zalul argue that such pressure could be avoided by other voices being added to the decision-making mix - those of public representatives, other environmental bodies and local governments.

Initiators of the initiative expect to run into considerable opposition as they attempt to gather support in the Knesset for a bill to establish a sea and shore authority, since it would take power over a significant amount of money away from existing government offices. But they say it is clear that Israel's economic dependence on the sea, which serves as a gateway to the rest of the world, demands extremely responsible management; they hope a responsible authority can be established before a large environmental and economic disaster takes place.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection is supposed to protect marine resources, but its sea and shore branch lacks the personnel to keep track of such large expanses of sea and to effectively supervise its far-flung infrastructure. The Energy and Water Resources Ministry has begun to use experts on its behalf, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry, to create mandatory guidelines for gas and other companies in order to protect the marine envir onment. The two ministries plan to broaden the national sea supervisory project managed by the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, to include deep water as well as the shoreline.

Risk of disaster to rise

Still, exploitation of Israel's coast and seas will soon rise significantly, with the construction of more desalination plants and natural gas drilling sites. While these installations may be of great benefit in providing energy and water, there is concern that they could damage the natural environment and may even cause an ecological disaster with severe economic consequences. Israel faces the challenge of developing an effective governmental mechanism to gather data on the state of the sea, weigh risks and mandate steps that will prevent such a disaster.

A pipeline leak or a broken drill would be examples of potential disasters, since gas and oil installations in the sea require the establishment of drill and pipeline infrastructures in areas that are highly sensitive in ecological terms. A leak or broken drill could cause widespread pollution, as happened as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to sites in the Mediterranean Sea where gas has already been discovered, 15 more will be probed for gas or oil. A number of large platforms for treatment of gas are to be built on the shoreline and two pipelines leading from the sea to the beach will be installed. Gas drills can also threaten the environment. A gas installation in the North Sea operated by Shell was the site of a leak last year that will likely pollute the sea with carbons poisonous to plant and other marine life.

Desalination plants can also have a negative influence on the marine environment. The plants send concentrations of the salt that remains after water is processed into the sea, where a salt desert is likely to be formed at the end of the pipeline. Chemicals used in the desalination process are also sent to the sea. Two senior researchers at the government's Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute recently warned that required checks on the environmental consequences of desalination are not being carried out.

And to all this we must add that plans to build undersea communications lines may further damage the seabed. There is already a serious problem occurring underwater, where the natural fish population is decreasing in numbers, in the wake of increased activities of fishing boats and as a result of the removal of sand from the sea in order to enlarge existing ports.