Israeli Minister Blocks Controversial UAE Oil Deal Fearing Red Sea Disaster

Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry says 'decided to adopt a policy of zero additional risk in the Gulf of Eilat' ■ Pipeline firm lodges complaint with attorney general

Avi Bar-Eli
Avi Bar-Eli
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Members of a clean-up team work at the site of an oil spill at the Evrona desert reserve, near the city of Eilat, 2014
Members of a clean-up team work at the site of an oil spill at the Evrona desert reserve, near the city of Eilat, 2014Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters
Avi Bar-Eli
Avi Bar-Eli

Israel rejected Wednesday the deal with the United Arab Emirates to ship large quantities of oil through a pipeline running from the southern city of Eilat to Ashkelon, days after a legal spat erupted between the pipeline's operator and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Co., which operates an oil pipeline stretching from Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea, will not be permitted to expand its transportation and storage of oil in the Gulf of Eilat beyond what it already has permission for, the director general of the ministry, Galit Cohen, wrote on Wednesday.

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The 10-year Emirati contract, signed in December, provides for the shipment of an estimated 14 million tons of oil a year, the equivalent of 50 to 70 oil tankers that would dock at the company’s Eilat pipeline terminal, if the contract comes to fruition.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company's Eilat port facility.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The pipeline firm has been in the crosshairs of environmental groups over a contract with the UAE to ship greatly increased quantities of oil through the pipeline, after which it would be loaded on ships headed for Europe. Due to concerns over potential risks to the environment from the deal, Zandberg had previously ordered her staff to cut off contact with Europe Asia Pipeline, whose risk assessment documentation on the deal was also rejected by the ministry as inadequate. Wednesday’s statement by Cohen appears to spell the end of the deal as far as the ministry is concerned.

Last week, Europe Asia Pipeline lodged a complaint with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit claiming that Zandberg exceeded her ministerial authority in ordering her professional staff to break off contact with the company over the deal. The company asked Mendelblit to order Zandberg to reverse course and "act only within the authority granted to her by law."

Enviroment Minister Tamar ZandbergCredit: Emil Salman

On Tuesday, an indictment was filed against the company accusing it of causing a severe oil spill at the Evrona nature reserve near Eilat in December 2014. The company described the incident as an isolated mishap.

Cohen said in her statement that the decision to limit the Europe Asia Pipeline to quantities it is currently permitted to ship makes any further risk assessment of the UAE oil contract superfluous. “I have decided to adopt a policy of zero additional risk in the Gulf of Eilat,” Cohen said flatly. “The position of our ministry,” she added, “has been and remains that enforcing the contract would substantially increase the environmental risks to the residents of the State of Israel on land and sea.”

Cohen’s comments appeared to respond to the company’s claim that the ministry had initially supported the deal and then switched course in June, after the new Israeli government was sworn in and Zandberg was appointed environment minister. The deal would involve unacceptable increased tanker traffic in Eilat, Cohen wrote, including the risk of oil leaks. The Eilat coast is an environmentally sensitive area, home to coral reefs and other marine life.

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