The committee tasked with drafting a national policy on Israel’s newly discovered natural gas reserves decided to allow the gas producers to export even more than they requested, according to the protocols released late Tuesday night.
The protocols of the Tzemach committee span more than 2,000 pages, and cover 17 meetings that took place over nine months.
The committee issued its final recommendations 10 months ago, calling on the government to permit the export of 53% of the natural gas discovered off Israel’s shores, and recommending that it reserve enough gas for Israel’s own needs for the next 25 years.
Yet a quick glance at the protocols appears to be enough to substantiate allegations of improper conduct.
The National Economic Forum and the Finance Ministry played a dominant role in the committee discussions, pushing to export an even larger quantity of gas than the gas companies had requested. The Environmental Protection Ministry, represented by director general Alona Sheffer-Karo, often voiced minority opinions.
Energy Ministry director general Shaul Tzemach was inclined to take the Finance Ministry’s stance in favor of exporting.
Many people who had not actually been appointed to the committee also attended discussions, including the prime minister’s adviser Gabi Golan, who took part until Sheffer-Karo commented on his presence.
One of the more noteworthy discussions centered on how much gas to export. While the gas companies had said they would need to be permitted to export 300-350 billion cubic meters of gas in order to fund their export facilities, the committee ultimately called for allowing the export of 500 BCM of gas, while reserving only 450 for Israel’s own uses − even though the committee did not have figures stating that Israel actually had that much gas in total.
National Economic Forum chairman Eugene Kandel, a committee member, stated that a country needs to export 350-400 BCM in order to be a major international player, sparking the ire of Sheffer-Karo, who commented that until then the committee had been talking about exporting only 300-350 BCM.
The committee had a document from the Energy Ministry stating that Israel had proven gas reserves of only 520 BCM, with a high likelihood that the reserves actually totaled 800 BCM. But at the last minute, it raised the assumption to 950 BCM, based on a three-year-old report by the American Geological Institute stating it was 90% certain that another 150 BCM would be discovered in Israel’s coastal waters, according to the protocol.
The committee’s stance underwent a critical change in the final meetings, when Tzemach started prioritizing exports over Israel’s own gas needs. Sheffer-Karo voiced her objections here, too, saying that Israel’s own needs should be placed first.
“What will happen if we commit to giving them 350 BCM and sell all kinds of contracts and then something goes wrong, like what happened at the Tethys Sea reserve last summer?” she stated in one meeting, referring to the collapse of those gas wells.
Other committee members also expressed discomfort over the change in tone.
“If we’re going to change the concept and say there’s a certain amount we need to export and whatever’s left over is for the local market, then without addressing the economic side, but only how it looks to the public, that’s really not something we should be saying,” said the Foreign Ministry’s deputy head for economic affairs, Irit Ben-Abba.
“Countries around the world are talking about energy security, not about exporting. We in Israel want to take a different message altogether, and it’s problematic,” she said.