As the World Turns Away From Oil, Israel Still Insists on Searching for It

Israel's energy minister backtracks on her environmental commitments 'to honor existing licenses', although her party vowed to fight climate change in the past election

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Deer in the Arava desert, this year
Deer in the Arava desert, this yearCredit: Yaniv Cohen/Israel Nature and Parks Authority
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Two companies are due to begin exploring for oil and gas next month in southern Israel’s Arava Desert, despite the fact that Energy Minister Karine Elharrar has vowed to fight climate change and to refrain from granting new exploration licenses.

A spokesman for Elharrar told Haaretz the minister had no plans to stop the scheduled drilling, saying that “the ministry is legally obligated to honor existing licenses.”

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The search area is a 275-square-kilometer tract bordering Yotvata in the north through Samar, Elifaz, Be’er Ora and Eilot in the south.

When the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry issued the license, in February 2019, Yuval Steinitz of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party headed the agency.

Elharrar, from Yesh Atid, has said she would not permit any new drilling, citing fossil fuels as a “source of pollution for which there is no longer any room. It is in the public interest. We have to fund less-polluting energy sources and that is what the ministry under my control will do.” Even so, she is not doing anything to block exploration work already approved.

Israel’s exploration for oil flies in the face of a world seeking to wean itself off fossil fuels to cope with the threat of climate change. The wide use of fossil fuels since the 19th century has released unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to higher global temperatures and increasing extreme weather events.

Two weeks ago, the journal Nature published research that showed that the world will need to leave most of its oil and gas reserves in the ground if it wants to prevent a further worsening of the climate. It said that 90 percent of known coal reserves would have to be left unused, as well as 60 percent of gas reserves, to give the world a 50 percent chance of preventing a rise in average temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the maximum rise that is believed will prevent serious climate damage.

Yesh Atid, which is led by Yair Lapid, presented itself in the last election campaign as committed to fighting climate change. Among other things, it vowed to shepherd comprehensive legislation through the Knesset and to establish a climate council in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The past decade has been the hottest decade in the history of the planet. Humanity is responsible. We need to ensure that our children will have air to breathe and water to drink,” Lapid himself said during the election campaign.

The companies drilling for oil in the Arava – Arbel Oil and Gas Explorations and Shoval Engineering Group – have not kept to the timetables they agreed to, which called for seismographic surveys to be completed by February 2020. That means the license can be taken back.

Nevertheless, in January 2021, during the previous government, the Energy Ministry’s petroleum commissioner extended their license for another two and a half years. Under the new timetable, the two companies were supposed to begin the survey by June, but only in the last few weeks have the companies begun coordinating with the kibbutzim on whose lands the license extends to begin exploratory operations in October.

Under the law, a license can be revoked if the holder doesn’t fulfill its terms, including its timetable. Government sources who spoke to Haaretz said in addition to the fact that the companies haven’t met the timetable, the ministry could also take back the licenses on the grounds that the extension was granted by a caretaker government and/or that the new government has adopted a new energy policy. If Elharrar doesn't rescind the licenses outright, she could at least cite the changes as a reason for reexamining them.

The sources noted an August 2020 announcement by Steinitz to back out of plans to develop four gas-fired power plants following the government’s adoption of a program to increase the share of solar to 30 percent of Israeli electricity generation by the year 2030.

In response to questions from Haaretz, the ministry said that an “extension of a license is a separate process from the approval of milestones, in accordance with section 18 of the Petroleum Law.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Ministry last week unveiled a new policy stand in a letter signed by its director general, Galit Cohen, under which the government would bring to a complete halt all new oil and gas development onshore and offshore. In addition, some of the kibbutzim whose land lies in the Arava license area oppose exploration.

The environmental advocacy organization Life and Environment said that on top of the global issue of climate change, it has local concerns about the Arava becoming a “backyard” for petroleum companies and related businesses that drill wells and lay pipelines and endanger the environment with leaks and emissions.

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