The board of directors of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund decided last week to oppose a plan to drill for shale oil in the area south of Beit Shemesh until it obtains more information about both the risks of fracking and the likely value of the project.
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The decision is likely to significantly reduce the project’s chances of moving forward, since part of the territory slated for the pilot drill is under the JNF’s control.
The plan is being promoted by Israel Energy Initiatives, an American-owned company that holds licenses from the state to explore for oil in this area. It is known that shale oil is present in large quantities, but whether it can feasibly be extracted in commercial quantities remains uncertain. The company argues that exploiting this oil could help free Israel of its dependence on imported oil.
IEI wants to conduct its pilot drill in the Adullam region of the Elah Valley, which is located south of Beit Shemesh and west of Gush Etzion. If this pilot proves the economic, environmental and engineering feasibility of the venture, the company would seek permission to begin commercial drilling in a strip of land south of the test drill, near the Tarqumiya crossing into the West Bank.
The problem is that IEI’s license area includes some of KKL- JNF’s most important forests. At last week’s board meeting, KKL chairman Efi Stenzler said the project was liable to damage the local landscape in an area where the organization has invested heavily in preserving it. He also accused IEI of having carried out certain activities on KKL lands without its permission, something IEI vehemently denies.
The board’s decision was based on the report of a professional committee it set up to study the matter. That panel, which was headed by another board member, Orr Karassin, concluded that fracking could seriously damage the landscape and also endanger the area’s groundwater.
Stenzler said the board’s decision would remain in force until “the uncertainty over the many risks inherent in the venture has been significantly reduced.”
IEI’s CEO, Israel Shafir, responded that, “The report’s authors object in principle – and they say this explicitly – to any oil production, regardless of how it’s done.”
He also charged that their specific objections to the pilot “have no professional basis. For instance, they say conducting the pilot could endanger water sources, but the Water Authority determined there was no such danger. A professional committee whose members included the chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Ministry reached the same conclusion.”
The company also noted that any commercial production would take place in a narrow strip of land near Tarqumiya that is not part of the area whose preservation KKL deems important.