Collapse of Haifa's Iconic Cooling Tower Revives Debate on Israel's Need for Clean Energy

The collapse at an oil refinery in a city that produces almost 40 percent of the country's industrial pollutants comes amid talks of plan to move petrochemical industries to southern Israel

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The cooling towers in Haifa, June 12, 2020.
The cooling towers in Haifa, June 12, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Friday's collapse of one of the two iconic cooling towers of the Haifa oil refineries occurred, symbolically enough, just when the issue of a plan to move the refineries and associated industries from the Haifa Bay area came up for public discussion.

In January, the Haifa district Planning and Building Committee held a preliminary meeting about the government plan, dubbed Innovation Valley and spearheaded by the Israel Lands Authority, which had been seeking responses from the public, planners and government officials when the coronavirus crisis ground the process to a halt.

The plan’s main goal is to evacuate the refineries and petrochemical industries from the large area they occupy in the Haifa Bay and replace them with other sources of employment, excluding heavy industry, and tens of thousands of apartments. According to the government’s plan an alternative location for the refineries and related industries would be found in the Negev. The state is also expected to remove the fuel depot situated near the Haifa Bay town of Kiryat Haim.

However, there are still doubts about the plan because the report on which it is based, prepared by the American consulting firm McKinsey, has not yet been presented to the public.

The BAZAN Group, which owns the refineries, has not changed its plans and has even begun planning construction of an independent natural gas power station to produce the electricity needed for the refineries. According to BAZAN, the Innovation Valley project is slated for implementation only in another 20 or 30 years, and so it is reasonable to move ahead with its projects.

The removal of the petrochemical industries will no doubt have far-reaching environmental benefits for Haifa and its surroundings. Among the benefits is the rehabilitation of the Kishon Stream, now pent up by the petrochemical compound, as well as a reduction in air pollution, mainly nitrogen oxide.

Haifa occupies only a small percentage of land in Israel, but produces almost 40 percent of the country’s industrial pollutants, mostly from the refineries and heavy industry in the bay area. According to last year’s state comptroller’s report, the Environmental Protection Ministry has encountered major difficulties in enforcing the law when it comes to these industries.

The removal of the industries from their current location would also turn Haifa into a city with new employment and housing opportunities and provide a much needed change of image. But this is long and complex process, which would also involve cleanup of the ground itself and might take many years, is estimated at about $431 million.

The downside of the move would be creating more environmental stress on the Negev. Even if the refineries moved to an existing industrial zone in the Negev, it would still mean more pollution, spills and fuel transport. And so the question has come up as to the extent of Israel’s strategic need for the continued operation of the refineries, and they may not even have a place in the Negev.

The skeleton of the Haifa Bay planCredit: Yaar Korin Management

According to the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry Israel will need oil refineries for domestic needs in the future and will also continue to need associated petrochemical products, for example, bitumen to pave roads. But the National Economic Council’s vice chairman, Yuval Admon, said at the district planning and construction committee meeting countered the argument that Israel can get along without the refineries.

According to Admon, even if the state imported refinery products it would still have to store them, and one possible place for such storage would be at or near the Haifa Port, so the city would in any case not be able to rid itself of petrochemical pollutants.

In terms of the global challenge of climate change, the world should be working toward independence from oil and coal as well as from natural gas. And so moving the industries to the Negev will not help combat climate change; the greenhouse gasses they produce will continue to reach the atmosphere.

One thing that can obviate dependence on the oil refineries or the import of refined petrochemical products is expanded use of electric cars. According to the Energy Ministry’s plan, by the end of the decade the import of gas-run vehicles will be banned. At present, about 60 percent of refined petrochemical products are used for transportation.

Until such ban is in place, the refineries in Haifa, or in the Negev, will be under very strict regulations, mainly of the Environmental Protection Ministry, to avoid the serious mishaps that have occurred over the past few years and to present pollution that exceeds legal limits.

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