Oil/gas rig - AP - Sept. 17, 2010
An oil rig (illustrative) Photo by AP
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One of the world's most important environmental organizations, the World Wildlife Fund, warned yesterday about the ecological impact of planned natural gas drills in the eastern Mediterranean, first and foremost those planned by Israel and Egypt.

In a statement, the organization charged that the planned drills disregarded legal restrictions set down in international agreements to protect the sea and would cause severe damage to marine species.

The statement singled out Israel's Leviathan site - located 135 kilometers offshore and involving drills at a depth of more than 1,000 meters - as well as a planned Egyptian drill located 80 kilometers from the Nile Delta. Both are areas whose seabeds contain a wealth of unique species, said Dr. Sergei Tudela of WWF, and their ecosystems are very fragile and sensitive to outside interference.

Prof. Bella Galil of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute in Haifa said the planned drill sites contained many species of coral, sponges and crabs, as well as various types of sharks.

"These are small populations, so if they suffer damage, it will be very hard for them to recover," she explained. "This is a region that is likely to be important to humans, because of these species' contribution to the development of various products. But it's also very interesting and special, and therefore, it must be protected."

WWF says that all the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel, are bound by various treaties aimed at protecting the sea, including a protocol on preventing pollution from drilling that is part of the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution. That protocol came into force about six weeks ago, after the requisite number of countries ratified it.

The organization also claims there is an absolute ban on drilling in areas that are particularly ecologically sensitive. It is therefore demanding environmental impact studies of these drills before they go forward.

Israel, however, has yet to ratify the protocol on pollution from drilling, and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan therefore recently ordered his staff to complete the groundwork for the government to do so. The ministry has complained that it currently lacks tools to supervise gas drills and prevent them from causing environmental damage. Ratifying the treaty, it says, would at least deepen Israel's legal commitment to doing so.