The Carmel shore
The Carmel shore. Photo by Tomer Neuberg
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The reportedly impressive natural gas deposits discovered opposite the country's shores and the possibility of producing petroleum from oil shale could free Israel from its dependence on imported energy sources in the coming years. In the case of gas, this would also mean a transition to a cleaner source of energy.

However, environmental organizations and the inhabitants of areas potentially affected by this are demanding that the safety risks entailed in the change be taken into account, along with the potential damage to nature and quality of life.

Thus in recent months residents of the southern plain and the northern Negev have been fighting the plans to build two plants to produce electricity from natural gas. They fear the plant planned for a site near Kiryat Malakhi will be too close to factories where there are hazardous substances and believe the plant to be built north of Kiryat Gat will sully the landscape.

In the Adulam region, near Beit Shemesh, residents are fighting a wide-ranging plan to produce petroleum from oil shale. They fear drilling and the accompanying infrastructure will harm the landscape and tourism to the region, which the government has asked UNESCO to designate as a World Heritage Site.

The most prominent fight, however, is being waged in the Carmel coast area, where residents are battling a plan to build facilities to receive and process the natural gas found offshore in the Dalit and Tamar fields. The plans are being reviewed by the National Planning and Building Council and are being advanced by a consortium of companies that has received a license to produce gas offshore, headed by the Israeli company Delek Energy and the American company Noble Energy.

The companies are primarily interested in a number of sites along the Carmel coast, either between Ma'agan Michael and Atlit, or near Hadera. They want to build a relatively small facility to reduce the pressure in the sea pipeline. From there, the gas will be channeled to a large plant, further away from the shore, where fluids will be extracted from it before it is sent into the national pipeline.

Residents of the area, both Jews and Arabs, see the plans as a threat to the quality of life and the landscapes they hold dear, and are demanding the companies set up the facilities on offshore platforms.

They have raised considerable money for this struggle, have petitioned the High Court of Justice and have plastered roads and streets with protest posters. They demonstrate at public functions and are collecting signatures for petitions.

Environmental organizations, which are encouraging producing energy from natural gas, in place of coal, have joined the fight.

The residents say building the gas plants on the Carmel shore will serve only the energy companies. This, they say, is why the companies are claiming the natural gas now being drilled south of Ashkelon (in addition to the imports from Egypt ) will last only until 2012. Under this tight deadline, the companies say, it's easier to build on land and not offshore, where construction takes longer.

"They have intentionally produced hysteria about time," charged Tomer Meroz, one of the leading activists against the facilities. "According to the data we have from the drilling site near Ashkelon, the gas reserves there will last until 2016 at least, and therefore there is time to plan and think."

As if it weren't enough that the companies have forced a timetable, say the protesters, they are also setting the tone for establishing the national master plan for building gas installations. In this way, they say, national planning has been privatized for the benefit of private interests.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud ) has also found problems in the system. "It is a disgrace to the state that it isn't fulfilling its obligation and is letting a private entrepreneur determine a national master plan for the energy economy," he told Haaretz.

"At the place where they are planning to build the installations there is one of the most beautiful beaches in the country and a large sailing club," said Eran Cohen of Kibbutz Sdot Yam, referring to one of the options for building the installations, south of the kibbutz. "The installations will limit the use of the beach and will in effect expropriate it from the public."

Other alternative sites mentioned in the area near Moshav Dor would also cause damage to the landscape, the activists claim. However, it seems they are even more concerned about the danger from hazardous materials. In the past, a number of local council heads in the region suggested to the Planning Council that the installation be built in an abandoned quarry near Moshav Ein Ayala. However, local residents expressed vehement opposition and the council heads retracted their proposal. Nevertheless, it was one of the options examined by the Planning Council this week.

Meroz says he is also concerned about a possible missile attack on what is slated to be the largest energy production complex in Israel. "We are talking about a huge petrochemical plant, with enormous quantities of gas. Bombing those installations would cause tremendous damage to the Carmel coast and cut off Israel's entire infrastructure corridor and the main transportation routes from north to south," he argued. He also said possible leaks of hazardous material and air pollution could place the heavily populated area at risk.

According to Meroz, the risk assessment surveys performed by the entrepreneurs and the state are not sufficient because they were based on old data. He notes that in future additional plants may be built for the gas discovered recently at another offshore field - Leviathan, adjacent to Dalit and Tamar. If that happens the authorities will no longer seek alternative sites, but may rather build more installations at sites already in use or increase these sites' capacity, and the risks will increase. The residents and the environmental organizations are demanding the Planning Council thoroughly examine the option of processing natural gas offshore, thus reducing considerably the extent of installations on land. "This is the accepted thing in the world - there is no reason it shouldn't be done in Israel as well," Meroz said. Nir Papai, the head of the Environment and Nature Protection Division of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, agreed: "We think natural gas is good from the environmental and economic perspective but the surveys done thus far have not included the offshore alternative and it must be examined."

On Tuesday, the Planning Council announced it would in fact begin looking at the possibility of offshore rigs.

Can't download gas

Gideon Tadmor, CEO of Delek Energy, says the gas will give Israel cleaner air, and may render coal power plants superfluous altogether. "However, there is no way around it - gas doesn't come over the Internet," he said. "Installations are needed to process it and to receive it." According to Tadmor, supplying gas nationwide necessitates building processing plants in the north, in addition to the plant near Ashkelon.

Tadmor is behind the 2012 timetable presented by the companies. Last week he announced that the newly discovered gas would hit the market by 2013.

As for the charges that the planning process has been "privatized," Tadmor says the committee appointed by the Planning Council will decide the issue.

"We can't rely on an offshore alternative," Tadmor said. "At the Dalit and Tamar fields the sea is so deep that it is impossible to build a platform for the installations. All the works there will be undersea, and then the gas would have to be channeled to an installation at sea closer to the shore. This is less reliable in terms of hitches and maintenance, and its effect on the landscape - as far as swimming in the sea goes - will be huge. In any case, there will always have to be a installation on land for intake and processing, and this is also the situation at the drilling site in Ashkelon. In addition, building an offshore plant could take 60 months and Israel will need the gas well before that."

Locals say there are precedents abroad for building platforms at such depths. When asked about safety and environmental risks, Tadmor said the gasworks will be built after all the possible scenarios are examined and in accordance with the strictest standards. He added the proposed gas distribution system has safety measures like a mechanism to stop the flow of gas automatically should there be an irregular incident or a security risk.

As for concerns regarding environmental pollution, Tadmor says, "Contrary to what the residents are saying, this is not an installation where gas will be stored, nor is it a refinery, and therefore it will not emit pollution. Each molecule of gas will spend about 15 seconds in the installation and then continue on its way."

He added that local representatives have rejected the company's request to talk and to examine proposals for building installations with a minimal effect on the environment.

"We are ready and able to implement any land-based alternative the state determines, including the quarry alternative," said Yossi Abu, who is in charge of regulation at Delek Energy. "Recently there has also been mention of an alternative south of Acre, in an area that was previously a factory and we could also implement this. But the Israeli bureaucracy has to decide what the solution is."