Israel's Energy Ministry Still Backs Natural Gas Exploration, Despite Role in Climate Crisis

Israel's government continues to encourage search for more gas fields before 'window of opportunity' closes, as UN says a third of global warming caused by methane

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A gas platform off Israel's coast, last year.
A gas platform off Israel's coast, last year.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

One-third of global warming is a result of the emission of methane, the main component of natural gas, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Monday. Despite these findings, Israel’s Energy Ministry is still encouraging exploring additional potential natural gas fields before the “window of opportunity” to exploit these reserves closes.

One of the most important findings of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on climate change is that reducing carbon dioxide emissions alone is not enough to solve the climate crisis.

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“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” said Panmao Zhai, the co-chair of the scientific working groups that issued the report and the secretary general of the Chinese Meteorological Society.

In its Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014, the IPCC wrote explicitly that the potential for global warming resulting from methane over the next 20 years was 84 times that of carbon dioxide, and the international consensus treats methane as a dangerous fossil fuel. But Israel’s Energy Ministry is promoting it as a green alternative that will supposedly reduce emissions.

Former Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz led, along with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an aggressive policy of increasing Israel’s energy dependance on natural gas. Steinitz’s successor in the position, Karine Elharrar, has yet to announce any shift in policy.

A demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israel's offshore Leviathan field, 2019.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Israeli environmental groups are protesting the ministry’s actions concerning the interministerial committee headed by Udi Adiri, the director general of the Energy Ministry, who intends to increase exports of natural gas and encourage the search for additional fields.

Dov Khenin of Tel Aviv University, a former Knesset member and chairman of the Knesset’s environmental caucus, said the policy of dependence on natural gas is in complete opposition to the opinion of the scientific community. Natural gas is a large part of the problem, and not at all part of the solution, he said.

“We need to start to wean Israel off of natural gas, together with coal and oil. While in Europe the share of renewable energy is almost 50 percent, it is shameful that sun-blessed Israel is stuck under 7 percent,” Khenin said.

Jonathan Aikhenbaum, the director of Greenpeace Israel, said that "Israel is drenched with sun and blessed with innovation, and can play a special role in the global struggle in the climate crisis and the switch to a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, the new government, like its predecessor, is acting out of denial of the severity of the situation, as the scientific evidence shows. It continues to politically and financially support the natural gas industry, which is generating a climate disaster that will adversely affect regional stability." He called on the government to support a move away from natural gas and toward solar energy.

The IPCC report specified that the entire Middle East region can expect lower average precipitation, an increase in drought and weather conditions that lead to fires, and a drop in average wind speeds. Extreme events such as heat waves, floods and drought are expected to worsen in correlation with the global rise in temperatures.

In Israel, the pace of the increase in temperature is almost twice that of the world average – and the report reveals that the summers will heat up even more than the winters. The amounts of rain in the southern Mediterranean basin are expected to drop by 20 percent to 30 percent by the end of the century, states the report.

Prof. Daniel Rosenfeld, an expert in atmospheric science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the authors of the report, said the warming in Israel is expected to increase the evaporation of precipitation and decrease the quantity of available water. Countries will not significantly reduce emissions without a joint and coordinated international effort, in which Israel participates fully, he said. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is no choice but to move to renewable energy that is not based on burning coal, oil and gas. The sooner we prepare the infrastructure and make the transition, the better it will be, Rosenfeld said.

In spite of the findings in the report, the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water said that the process of producing natural gas in Israel is responsible for only 0.1 percent of all the methane emissions in Israel, while the source of most of these emissions is waste burial (77.5 percent) and agriculture (11.9 percent).

“The process of producing energy from natural gas is done through burning it, which does not involve emitting methane at all. The report will be studied in depth and will serve to draw conclusions,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Energy Ministry said that Israel’s energy sector is in the midst of a transition to the use of renewable energy sources that is expected to continue over the coming decades. Until this transition is completed, natural gas will be used to produce energy, the great majority of which serves to generate electricity and produce heat for industry and replaces more polluting fossil fuels such as coal and heavy fuel oil. The switch to natural gas reduced greenhouse gas emissions in Israel’s energy sector by about 50 percent for every unit of energy produced, the ministry said.

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