Israel Wants to Become a Petroleum Superpower, and the Climate Crisis Can Wait

Zafrir Rinat
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Europe Asia Pipeline Company oil tanks in Ashkelon, last week.
Europe Asia Pipeline Company oil tanks in Ashkelon, last week. Credit: Europe Asia Pipeline Company Spokesperson's Unit
Zafrir Rinat

While many states are increasingly switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, the Europe Asia Pipeline Company (formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company) seeks to make Israel a petroleum storage and transportation superpower.

A visit to company facilities in Ashkelon made the recent cabinet resolution promising a low-carbon future for the Israeli economy seem like science fiction. EAPC executives don’t hide their pride that the installation is one of the world’s 20 largest oil storage facilities. They make no bones about seeking to expand the company’s activities on land and sea, downplaying the potential environmental damage a serious oil spill could wreak in the Gulf of Eilat or the Mediterranean Sea.

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The EAPC was founded in the 1960s by the governments of Israel and Iran to transport crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Mediterranean countries. The company is owned by the Israeli government today, but it still benefits from the cloak of secrecy that surrounded its establishment. Its main pipeline brings oil from Eilat to Ashkelon, from which additional pipelines transport it to refineries in Haifa and Ashdod.

The Ashkelon facility’s 30 or so storage tanks have a combined capacity of 2.3 million cubic meters of crude oil and fuel products, nearly half of which is used by foreign companies.

The latest development is the problematic agreement EAPC signed in October with MED-RED Land Bridge, a company whose partners included businessmen from the United Arab Emirates. The agreement allows foreign-owned tankers to unload their cargo at EAPC’s terminal in Eilat or at one of the maritime connections – facilities that connect to the onshore pipeline – near the Ashkelon complex. The oil will be transferred between the two ports through the EAPC pipeline in the Negev.

The Evrona Nature Reserve, some 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of Eilat, after an oil spill in 2014, regarded as one of worst in Israel's history.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

According to Itzik Levy, the CEO of EAPC, in recent years increasing numbers of oil tankers from states on the Asian-European border, such as Azerbaijan, unload their cargo in Eilat for transport through the EAPC overland pipeline to Ashkelon and then to the Far East, where oil from Central Asia is preferred, in part due to its price. “In Europe distilleries have closed, their operations moved to Eastern Asia,” he says. That is also expected to be the main transportation route in the new agreement.

Levy says he was surprised by the strength of the opposition to the new agreement, which could triple the amount of oil passing through the Gulf of Eilat and the shores of Ashkelon. He says similar amounts were transported until the mid-1990s, when Egypt sent oil to Israel under the peace treaty. In fact, he adds, only two years ago a similar agreement ended between his company and other international bodies, about which he did not provide details.

The main argument of environmental organizations and the Eilat municipality against the agreement concerns the ecological danger resulting from the increase in the scope of activity. EAPC facilities were responsible for two of Israel’s most serious incidents of environmental pollution: In 2011 there was a large spill from the company’s pipeline in the Zin Stream Nature Reserve, in the Negev. The damage is still evident today; and in 2014, some 5 million liters (1.3 million gallons) of crude oil leaked from the pipeline into the Evrona reserve, in the Arava Desert. The restoration work is expected to continue for years to come.

Environmental groups also expressed concern about the condition of the pipeline, which they described as “old and corroding.” Quickly leak and disable sections in the pipe until repaired. The Environmental Protection Ministry said the pipe was inspected along its entire length and all defects that were detected were repaired. In addition, the EAPC operates a control system that makes it possible to quickly detect leaks and disable sections of the pipe until they are repaired.

Environmental professionals believe the expansion of activity following the new agreement endangers the ecology of the Gulf of Eilat and the Mediterranean shore. The concern is not only about a large spill, but also chronic damage as a result of the increased volume of transport of pollutants.

An oil boom intended to contain oil spills at Europe Asia Pipeline Company's oil terminal in Eilat. Credit: Europe Asia Pipeline Company's Spokesperson's Unit

At sea, there is a grave fear of harm to marine mammals and sea turtles, which are already in danger of extinction. In the Gulf of Eilat, the main concern is the complete destruction of the coral reef and the city’s tourism infrastructure in the event of a major spill. Assaf Zvuloni, the Eilat District ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, says: “One of the main problems of marine pollution in the Gulf of Eilat is that in a very short time, because of the narrow structure and strong winds that characterize the area most days of the year, the contamination reaches the coral reef.” He noted that oil spills would harm not only corals but also many other species of animals, including fish and invertebrates.

Another concern is damage to water desalination plants, one of which is near the oil tanker connectors in Ashkelon. EAPC keeps boats nearby that can handle small spills, but a major spill would require the involvement of international companies – and even if they operate as efficiently as possible, great damage is nonetheless likely.

The number of oil tankers in the Gulf of Eilat is expected to increase to dozens every year, from fewer than 10 a year today. EAPC officials explain that today’s oil tankers are double-walled and much less likely to leak than in the past, and in fact the incidence of major spills has declined around the world. The company also says the number of tankers in Eilat will remain much lower than in Jordan’s Aqaba, across the Gulf of Eilat, which handles about 200 a year.

Still, even a single spill can cause irreversible damage, the consequences of which will be felt for many years. In a recent risk assessment, the EAPC said the probability of a serious contamination event was one in 366,000 years; the chance of a less severe incident, as a result of an oil leak from the pipes carrying oil from the storage facilities on the shore to a tanker at sea, is one in 1,111 years. The Environmental Protection Ministry vehemently rejected the survey’s findings, saying they were not credible because they ignore several other scenarios. The head of the ministry’s marine and coastal division, Rani Amir, said in a statement that the survey “does not meet the guidelines in the best case, and in the more likely case it constitutes negligence and possibly even disregard of our directives.” The EAPC did not respond to these claims.

The risks involved in moving oil are illustrated by the oil spill that washed tar up to Israel’s beaches last winter, but the opposition now to the agreement also stems from the attitude to fossil fuels throughout the world. The three large environmental groups in Israel – the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Union for Environmental Defense and Zalul, approached Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the agreement. They warned that it could “thwart the process now underway to reduce greenhouse gasses and move toward a low-carbon economy by 2050, and the international commitments by the state in the framework of the international struggle against the climate crisis.”

The Zin Stream in the eastern Negev desert, following an oil spill in 2011. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

EAPC head Levy sees no contradiction between the declared government policy and expanding the company’s activities. “All the evaluations say that in the two coming decades, fuel consumption will not decrease,” he says. “The fuel that is manufactured will have to be transported and we are doing it without increasing existing infrastructure. The fuel can be moved via the Suez Canal, and our infrastructure can be used to bring more money into Israel,” he added. A similar argument was made recently by the CEO of the Haifa Oil Refineries, Moshe Kaplinsky, who also mentioned that in the case of the EAPC, the money goes to the state and not to tycoons. What is clear is that those involved in the oil industry, producers, transporters and refiners – want to continue to take advantage of this profitable resource for many years to come.

Another risk to the Ashkelon facility is rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, because Hamas sees infrastructure facilities as strategic targets and the floating roofs of the oil storage tanks turns them into vulnerable targets. In the recent Gaza operation, a rocket struck a tanker belonging to Tashan, also a government company that stores fuel and operates an installation in Ashkelon near the EAPC facility. A fire broke out, which was extinguished before it caused damage. On the roof of every one of the EAPC tanks at the facility is a system intended to identify strikes and quickly prevent fires.

Five year ago the law governing the EAPC’s franchise was changed, and it now require the company to operate according to the Planning and Construction Law. It is now required to present to the Knesset National Infrastructure Committee a plan for its installations in Ashkelon, which is now in the advanced stages of approval. The plan supposedly confirms the existing situation, but the Ashkelon area Association of Cities for the Environment says it is concerned that the company intends to take advantage of the plan to build new installations, among them a chemical terminal that will store dangerous materials. This comes at a time when the existing facilities, situated not far from residential areas in Ashkelon, already constitute dangers and odor nuisances.

In this context, last week the head of the association, Meital Amitay requested to present to the committee the association’s opposition to the plan. Levy said that although the plan allows the EAPC to build a chemical terminal, the company does not intend to do so, because it will act only with the approval of the planning institutions.

After the plan is approved, the EAPC will be able to store and transport oil at a faster rate, and only a different government policy will lead to change. Recently the state responded to a High Court of Justice petition filed by environmental organizations against the agreement, and asked that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid be given an extension to examine the agreement. This will be a test pitting environmental considerations against the expected profits for Israel in becoming an international oil pipeline.

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