With No Set Plan, Israel to Shut Down Polluting Oil Refineries in Haifa

The closing of Haifa oil refineries will reduce fossil-fuel use, an essential step in complying with the Paris Agreement on climate change

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Haifa Port, 2021
Haifa Port, 2021Credit: Haaretz/ Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Israel approved in principle on Sunday a plan to shut down Haifa’s oil refineries and petrochemical plants, marking Israel’s first-ever planned dismantling of an industrial zone and an important step toward complying with the Paris climate change agreement.

But the resolution contained no timeframe for the closure, nor was any budget approved for it. Implementing it will require Israel to replace the refineries with facilities for importing refined petroleum and products to make up for what local industry now produces.

The cabinet decision stems from a 2021 report by an interministerial committee of directors general that concluded that the refineries were emitting unacceptable levels of air pollution in the Haifa area and that they should be shuttered. The plants emit large quantities of sulfuric and nitrate oxides, and other substances that are considered carcinogenic.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg hailed Sunday’s move as one that would “improve the quality of life and the local environment.”

“We have more work ahead of us, and we will continue to push for the rapid, effective and – just as importantly – correct decisions to remove industrial plants that pollute from Haifa Bay,” she said.

Sunday’s cabinet resolution did not point to the petrochemical industry as the source of the pollution, but it did paint a negative picture of the industrial zone as dividing Haifa’s residential areas and giving a bad name to the city’s industrial zone, which is seen by many residents as a dirty and dangerous place to work in and live near.

Senior ministry officials are now slated to begin talks with Oil Refineries Ltd. and with Israel Chemicals, which owns petrochemical plants adjacent to the refineries, on terms for implementing the cabinet resolution. When the negotiations are complete, the Finance Ministry’s budget division will be responsible for financing the closure. The resolution gives the government the right to halt the refineries’ operations unilaterally if the negotiations fail.

The nonprofit Zalul Environmental Association criticized the cabinet proposal for lacking a timetable or a budget. “There must be strict timetables to prepare the energy sector [for this step] by 2027,” said Sarit Golan, chairwoman of the Haifa Municipal Association for Environmental Protection.

A key condition for fulfilling the plan is ensuring that Israeli industry has a supply of imported refined petroleum and petroleum products, which means constructing terminals for them at Haifa Port capable of handling 425,000 tons each month.

But Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem objected to this aspect of the plan. “The government is about to seal Haifa’s fate as a polluted and dangerous city for many decades to come – a process that will continue to destroy the city and the entire metropolitan area,” she said.

Experts at the Environmental Protection Ministry who helped prepare the resolution said they believed it had started an inevitable process by which Israel will import only the refined oil and products that it needs without producing any surplus for export. Reducing fossil fuel consumption is an essential step toward Israel’s complying with the Paris Agreement on climate change, they said.

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