Israel's Environment Ministry Calls to Halt Oil Production: Shale Oil and Fracking Too Dangerous

Planned projects will lead to more pollution and earthquakes – and defeat plans to end the use of fossil fuels by 2013, says environmental watchdog

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

The Environmental Protection Ministry has called to completely halt all new plans to produce oil in Israel in order to reduce pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases. This comes in response to recent plans to promote oil production from hydraulic fracking and oil shale rock by the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry.

A team of experts prepared an opinion on using hydraulic fracking to search for and produce oil and natural gas in Israel, which was recently submitted to the Energy Ministry. This method is used to increase the flow of oil and gas by injecting liquids that create fractures in the rock layer.

The experts said the method can be used, but noted that its potential is limited and can be used mainly on the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley, the area around the Dead Sea and the southern Coastal Plain. The Energy Ministry recently gave its approval in principle to produce oil from the oil shale rocks in the area of the Rotem Plain in the Negev.

Last week, Dr. Ram Almog, the head of national project planning in the Environmental Protection Ministry, informed the Energy Ministry of its opposition to producing oil and gas by hydraulic fracking – or other methods.

Almog said in his letter that in recent years Israel has been promoting steps to reduce the use of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas). The use of coal-fired power plants has been reduced and a decision has been made to discontinue use of coal entirely by 2030, he added.

“Establishing the planning and regulatory infrastructure for producing oil in Israel in general, and using hydraulic fracking in particular, contradicts government policy and does not align with the government’s intention to be part of the global trend to move to a low-carbon economy,” wrote Almog. The existence of natural resources in Israel is important for its social and economic strength, but not at any price, so the Energy Ministry must act to discontinue the use of fossil fuels entirely, added Almog.

As for hydraulic fracking, Almog noted that it would damage open spaces because it utilizes short-term drilling and as a result requires numerous drilling sites, with their accompanying infrastructure. This method endangers groundwater and could cause earthquakes, as has happened in other countries. Using the oil in a refinery at a later stage also has environmental consequences, mainly air pollution, he added.

The Greenpeace environmental organization also opposes continued oil production in Israel, including hydraulic fracking. Dr. Jonathan Aikhenbaum of Greenpeace in Israel said: “The Energy Ministry is playing both sides. On one hand, it’s promoting the use of renewable energy and is truly making sincere efforts. On the other hand, it continues to encourage the use of fossil fuels by expanding the search for oil and gas at sea, and the use of oil shale and fracking. These are methods that cause environmental pollution and are also less efficient energetically. Their use is even more problematic environmentally in a small and densely populated country like Israel.”

The Energy Ministry’s said in response: “In order to allow a diverse mix of fuels to reduce dependence on imports, the ministry is examining different ways of producing energy. The matter of producing oil by hydraulic fracking has been examined by a committee of experts – and an interministerial steering committee with members from the Energy Ministry, Planning Administration, Health Ministry, Environmental Protection Ministry, Water Authority and the umbrella organizations of environmental organizations. The committee determined that the Energy Ministry’s policy and regulation provide a suitable solution for the use of this technology, under the supervision of the ministry.” The Energy Ministry also said it is continuing to examine the conditions required to carry out fracking.

“No connection exists between activities to produce oil and the emission of greenhouse gases and air pollution – while transporting oil can cause more emissions that the production itself. Moreover, Israel’s fuel basket is not under the authority of the [interministerial] committee,” said the Energy Ministry.