The closer you get to the experimental drill site east of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, where Israel Energy Initiatives is testing for the production of fuel from oil shale, the more the air smells of oil.
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For IEI, the experimental drill site is bringing the company one step closer to commercial production that will change Israel's energy economy. But according to a report by the Jewish National Fund, the project may have serious environmental repercussions and must be opposed until an environmental impact study is completed.
The Jerusalem Planning and Building Council is to decide in the coming months whether to allow IEI to establish a pilot underground mining project in the area of the Judean lowlands. The results of the pilot, which will operate on a larger scale than the experimental drilling, will reveal whether production of oil shale is economically feasible.
If so, IEI believes commercial production of fuel from oil shale can meet a good deal of Israel's energy needs.
Oil shale are the remnants of fossils that have been converted into organic material in rock hundreds of meters underground. When heated, the rock can produce oil.
The JNF, which is responsible for large areas in the Judean lowlands, was asked by the Planning and Building Council for its position on the matter, and the organization established a subcommittee of planners and environmental officials, headed by Dr. Or Karsin, a member of the JNF board of directors. The committee, none of whose members were experts on energy or oil shale, submitted its conclusion last week to the JNF board.
The committee recommended further research before approving the project.
"There are only four countries in the word that produce oil shale commercially in underground mining, although oil shale is more plentiful than liquid oil," the report states.
"This fact alone calls the economic safety and environmental viability of the project into question," the report continues.
One effect, albeit an unlikely one, about which the report warns is the creation of fissures in the ground through which oxygen would penetrate and thus cause the shale to ignite. Another concern is that oil will penetrate ground water through fissures, with "catastrophic implications," the report says.
Other threats cited include the release of toxic gases and severe damage to the landscape due to the construction related to the facilities.
In addition, the report states that the pilot will be implemented under different conditions than commercial production, and may not reveal the full effects of such production.
According to IEI's CEO, Relik Shafir, and its environmental engineer, Dana Shani-Kadmiel, if pollution occurs during experimental drilling, the pilot will be deemed a failure. However, Shafir said IEI was certain this would not happen "because we have enough tests already that show that there is no connection between the layer of oil shale and ground water."
Shani-Kadmiel said pollutants released underground would be dealt with so that no environmental pollution would occur.
Shafir also said, contrary to the JNF committee's assumption, that environmental impact assessment would continue even after the experimental phase, and planning would continue. With regard to landscape damage, he said every drill site would utilize only a small area, which would then be rehabilitated before moving on to another site.