A battle has been raging for several months over the royalties and taxes the petroleum firms will have to pay the state for the right to exploit the country's large natural gas reserves. While this issue is of crucial importance, there is another issue that has been pushed aside - the long-term environmental implications of these energy projects.
In addition to the planned natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, a plan is in the works to produce shale oil from rock embedded in the Judean Plain, between Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Gat. Experts estimate that this area contains one of the largest reserves of oil shale in the world.
Israel's reserves of natural gas and oil shale have the potential to end the country's dependence on foreign energy sources and, in the case of substituting natural gas for other energy sources, of reducing a number of types of greenhouse gas emissions.
But these projects come at a hefty environmental price. There is a real danger that in the rush to exploit the resources and divvy up the profits, Israel's environmental health could be trampled underfoot.
Undersea drilling, and the infrastructure needed to transport and store the extracted natural gas, could pollute and damage plant and animal habitats. Israel is not prepared to prevent such damage to its marine environment, because the Environmental Protection Ministry is insufficiently involved in the decision-making process. It cannot even conduct the environmental impact and risk assessment studies that are the norm in other countries.
Gas storage terminals will have to be built on-shore; these, too, present safety and environmental hazards. Another concern is that the extensive development of the natural-gas market could significantly reduce investments in renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind, and could hinder Israel's participation in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental hazards of shale oil are equally great. The envisioned project could damage the unique environment of the Judean Plain. The implications for air quality and greenhouse gases are still unknown. Even the project developers admit that shale oil production has never been carried out on a commercial scale, though they claim that each component of the project has been tested successfully.
Israel must counter the power of the gas barons and the wealthy patrons of the companies promoting the development of shale oil production by imposing a strict regime to regulate and control the environmental fallout from the project. It would require tests and monitoring to ensure that the impact on the environment is kept to a minimum.
In addition, the government and the national planning agencies must examine all of the possible alternatives, taking environmental damage into consideration. For example, it should consider scaling back the shale oil project if it is found that it will cause irrevocable damage to the Judean Plan area, or choosing more expensive but safer and potentially less ecologically damaging sites for the on-shore natural gas terminals.
If we do not create a system to combat the negative effects of exploiting accessible and valuable energy sources, Israel could find itself surrendering to the same "resource curse" that has plagued many countries. This curse created a situation in which the huge, easy profits reaped from the extraction of natural resources, which usually found their way to the hands of just a few, weakened the systems of checks and balances in government and civil society. It has left many countries scarred and wounded, both economically and environmentally.
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