Two months ago, in what was considered a victory for environmental groups, the National Planning and Building Council approved plans for a new power plant in Ashkelon that will run on natural gas. The decision, which received broad support from environmental groups, Ashkelon city hall and various government ministries, was opposed only by the Finance Ministry. The ministry advocated a coal-fired plant which, its representatives claimed, would be less expensive to operate. While the treasury's claims could be disputed once external costs - in terms of public health, property value and environmental quality - are taken into account, the real issue is whether natural gas is really the "environmental" alternative.
The National Infrastructure Ministry promotes natural gas on its website, where it explains: "Israel is actively striving to diversify the sources of energy by the introduction of natural gas as a primary, environmentally friendly and cheaper energy than other forms of energy."
Natural gas indeed trumps coal on several environmental counts: It burns cleaner and more efficiently than coal, releasing half the carbon dioxide, a third of the nitrogen oxides and nearly no sulfur dioxide per unit of energy produced. Transition to natural gas has already greatly improved local air quality.
Moreover, the entire nation has been in energy euphoria since reservoir after reservoir of natural gas has been discovered off our Mediterranean coast. Thanks to the unflinching work of Rabbi Michael Melchior and other social activists, who forced the government to raise taxes on gas, the state's share of revenues could add up to $1 billion a year starting in 2015. The potential economic windfall even played a role in the recent Standard & Poor's upgrading of Israel's credit rating.
But natural gas is no environmental panacea. At best, it is an improvement on coal and a transition fuel on the road to a cleaner, renewable-energy economy. At worst, it is a significant pollution source that could be responsible for another half-century's delay in developing truly clean, local energy production.
Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and burning fossil fuels inevitably produces carbon dioxide. Further, the gas is primarily methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas that is 72 times more potent in capturing heat over a 20-year period. Throughout the process of exploiting natural gas (exploration, extraction, transportation, storage and combustion ), there are many potential sources of methane leaks. According to two recent studies published in the journal Climatic Change, the transition to natural gas may have a greater negative impact on global warming than use of coal. This, write the authors of one report, "undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming."
Aside from its impact on climate change, dependence on natural gas brings other environmental problems - including pollution of ground water when drilling on land and, in our case, damage to marine ecology. The drilling-exploration process produces thousands of square meters of sludge, which can be laced with hydrocarbons, thereby poisoning the ocean floor and water. The act of extraction, whereby water must be pumped into the ground to push out the gas, creates "produced water" which, according to Russian marine ecologist Prof. Stanislav Patin, usually contains organic compounds, oil hydrocarbons, heavy metals and even radioactive elements. These can pose a significant threat to the marine environment.
There is, unfortunately, little research on the environmental impact of offshore gas drilling, and there is little oversight - either governmental or by environmental organizations - at drilling sites.
While our natural-gas infrastructure is being set up, the public must demand full transparency regarding chemicals used, rate of methane leakage and the aggregate environmental impact of every phase of the drilling, extraction and transportation process. Only transparency will assure best environmental practices.
Finally, there are potentially explosive issues (politically and literally ) of transportation and storage. Coastal communities as well as Druze villages on the Carmel were only the first to say "not in my backyard" to the demands for a natural gas infrastructure - and not only because of necessary land conversions. Natural gas, according to a study in this month's Scientific American, causes the third-highest number of deaths per unit of energy production, after coal and oil; most natural gas-related deaths occur during distribution and power and heat generation.
Despite its greater efficiency than coal or oil, it is a fallacy to assume that natural gas will solve all of our environmental problems. Nor is it as safe and clean an energy source as advocates suggest. For clean and safe, we need to turn to solar and wind power, and especially energy-efficiency measures. One telling example from our Environmental Protection Ministry: Thirty percent of our household energy requirements could be reduced by using existing technologies and green architecture.
If our appetite for electricity continues to rise, due to population growth and increased per capita consumption, our carbon emissions will continue to rise. If we don't use the time our natural gas discovery has afforded us to advance truly clean energy sources, environmental sustainability will continue to elude us.
Daniel Orenstein is a senior lecturer in the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology's architecture and town planning faculty.