Israel to Stop Granting Licenses for Exploration or Extraction of Oil Shale

Energy, environment ministries say they won’t extend oil-shale extraction license in Negev’s Rotem industrial zone

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An experimental oil shale rock drilling site near Beit Guvrin in 2011.
An experimental oil shale rock drilling site near Beit Guvrin in 2011.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

The government will no longer grant licenses for exploration or extraction of oil shale, the energy and environmental protection ministries announced on Tuesday, and will not extend the license to extract oil shale in the Rotem industrial zone south of Arad in the Negev. However, two other licenses that have been granted will be allowed to continue through the final stages of the approval process.

Green organizations welcomed in principle the decision not to grant new licenses for oil shale the use of which is considered particularly polluting. However, they added that the step seems to have been taken to ease approval for new licenses now under discussion.

There are a few areas in Israel were oil shale can be found deep underground. This rock, which produces oil when refined, but emits more pollutants than the refining of regular oil. According to the ministries’ statement, the decision was made at a meeting between Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin. The two agreed that licenses would be granted neither for deep mining the shale nor for strip mining to reach it the oil shale.

The Energy Ministry has informed the Rotem Amfert company, which holds the license for shale oil production at the Rotem site, of its intention not to renew it beyond May 2021. Rotem Amfert, a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals, has been using oil shale in recent years as a source of fuel for its industries.

The two companies that have received new licenses and are waiting for their final approval are Reem at the Mishor Rotem site and Shafir Engineering, in the Oron region of the Negev.

The energy and environmental protection ministries decided not to stop the approval process of these licenses because they are not expected to further impact the environment in the area; they are located at a site where phosphates had already been mined, which created access to the oil shale deep underground. Moreover, according to one of the licenses, the production of energy from the shale will include burning of plastic waste, which the ministry prefers over landfill disposal.

Cancellation of approval of the new licenses may have led to lawsuits against the state by the companies to which they had been issued.

The Environmental Protection Ministry asked the Energy Ministry last year to stop moving ahead on licensing of oil shale production. Recently the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel also approached the ministry on the matter, and also called to stop the production of regular oil. The head of the Energy Ministry’s Natural Resources Administration, Yossi Wurtzberger, responded to the SPNI: “The assumption at the basis for the call to stop oil shale and oil production in Israel and to prevent the advancement of other projects in this area is basically mistaken. Stopping these initiatives goes against government policy to wisely exploit existing natural resources in Israel and reduce dependence on import while protecting the environment.”

Environmental officials say the change in the ministry’s position stems from the expectation that the planning authorities will object for environmental reasons to granting licenses of this kind in the Negev and that it would be better to give final approval to licenses that have already been issued and not to promote other such projects in the future.

The Israel Union for Environmental Defense welcomed the ministers’ decision but criticized the issuing of new licenses. The organization’s CEO, Amit Bracha, said the projects “were destructive to the environment” and that “as long as there is no unambiguous decision to stop the two existing plans at Rotem and Oron, Israel could be in a situation where it makes the global climate crisis worse.”

As for the license to Rotem Amfert that will not be extended, Energy Ministry officials say the environmental impact of oil shale is too great and that this particular license has led to the emission of large quantities of sulfur that is polluting the environment. The ministry’s position on oil production has not changed.

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