Compromise on UAE Pipeline Puts Israel's Commitment to the Environment to the Test

Although the pipeline agreement is likely to go ahead, the government decided to let the Environmental Protection Ministry limit the quantity of oil it lets Israel's pipeline company transport

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The EAPC port in Eilat.
The EAPC port in Eilat. Credit: EAPC
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The role that environmental considerations play in Israel’s policies, as compared to economic and geopolitical ones, will face a crucial test in the coming year. This is evident in the state’s response to a petition to the High Court of Justice against an agreement to transport oil from the United Arab Emirates via Israel to Europe.

The agreement was signed by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company, which enjoys a special status thanks to having managed Israel’s international oil trade for years. This, combined with the fact that some government ministries don’t want to rescind the agreement, makes it impossible for the state to support canceling it.

Cancelation would be the right policy from an environmental standpoint. It would prevent unnecessary risks from oil spills to Israel’s desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast, as well as to coral reefs in the Gulf of Eilat.

But the Finance Ministry, which has spearheaded support for the agreement, still thinks that encouraging the oil trade serves essential Israeli interests and will pay economic dividends that the country shouldn’t give up. The government also apparently fears setting a precedent of infringing on state-owned companies’ ability to manage their own businesses.

Nevertheless, the government did take one step that leaves room for environmental interests to play a role as well – it declined to intervene in the Environmental Protection Ministry’s conduct toward EAPC. This happened in part thanks to the determination of both current Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and her predecessor, Gila Gamliel. Both vehemently oppose the agreement.

Zandberg has backed her ministry’s professional staff in deploying what has historically been the most effective weapon in its arsenal – setting conditions for the business to obtain an operating license and a permit to store hazardous materials. These conditions can be altered based on the desired environmental goals. In this case, the ministry set a principle of zero risk to the Gulf of Eilat.

What this principle means in practice is that EAPC won’t be able to increase the amount of oil it currently transports through the ports of Eilat and Ashkelon by so much as a drop. When the ministry deployed this same regulatory weapon against an ammonia storage tank on Haifa Bay, it proved extremely effective and the tank was ultimately shut down.

We can now expect a difficult legal and bureaucratic battle between the Environmental Ministry and EAPC. The state-owned company will exert all its legal and political resources in challenging the zero-risk principle and the ministry’s use of its regulatory powers to enforce it. This is a dispute that is likely to have a wide-ranging impact not only on the oil-transport agreement but in general over the ability of the ministry to supervise and set conditions on businesses and others whose operations risk harming the environment.

Environmental Ministry's vessels used to detect and treat marine pollution at the EPA port in Ashkelon, in July. Credit: Zafrir Rinat

The composition of the government will, of course, play a major role in the outcome of the battle. If the government is replaced in the next year or two, it is likely that Zandberg will lose the environmental portfolio and her successor will adopt different policies. Nevertheless, a minister can’t order his or her professional staff to change their stance in regard to toxic chemicals permits or other conditions placed on activities that endanger the environment.

The new minister would have to blatantly deviate from the ministry’s norms to do that and would be at risk of exceeding his or her authority. We can only hope that the professional staff’s ability to stand up to anything like that won’t need to be tested under political pressure and that they will be able to continue enforcing regulations based on purely environmental considerations.

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