Geologists Warn: Oil Shale Project May Pollute West Bank Groundwater

The pilot site inside the Green Line will produce the oil, which involves heating to 350 degrees Centigrade the layer of rock containing the shale 200-300 meters underground.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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IEI's experimental drill for shale oil near Beit Guvrin.
IEI's experimental drill for shale oil near Beit Guvrin.Credit: Moti Milrod
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The plan to produce oil from shale in the Judean lowlands is missing important information about the environmental impact of the project, including whether pollutants could seep into the water table, geologists warn in a new report to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee is to hold another meeting on Tuesday in which it will be asked to approve the pilot oil-shale production site proposed by Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI). The site is located west of the Tarqumiya crossing from the southern West Bank, inside the Green Line.

The pilot will produce the oil, which involves heating to 350 degrees Centigrade the layer of rock containing the shale 200 to 300 meters underground.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the Environmental Protection Ministry received a report on the implications of the project, written by geologists Dr. Amir Idelman and Dr. Amos Bein, a former head of Israel’s Geological Institute. Their report stated that the documents Israel Energy Initiatives submitted are missing basic information needed to understand the pilot’s environmental impact. Prof. Avner Vengosh of Duke University, an expert on the impact of such a process on ground water, reported to the Environmental Protection Ministry that there was concern over the passage of pollutants to the aquifer.

Contrary to IEI’s claims, Idelman and Bein note that the project does not accelerate natural processes, but rather involves the sudden exposure of rock to very high temperatures that do not exist when gas and oil are created in nature, and that such heat can disrupt natural processes. It is also unclear whether conditions in the region where the pilot is to take place include a natural barrier between the shale and other layers of rock that would stop pollution. Ground water could well up and absorb pollutants in the shale layer and spread them.

Report: More 
info needed

The report says IEI has not provided the required information on what products will result from the process and how environmental risks from these products will be mitigated. The report also states that there must be discussion in principle of alternatives to the pilot, including carrying out the project in areas of the Negev where there is oil shale.

The report notes that the term “oil shale” in the context of the Judean lowland is “a borrowed term that is misleading.” In the case of the Judean lowlands, the rock is very different from shale in other places in the world. This means that more changes could take place than are expected if the rock is heated as planned in the IEI pilot.

If the district committee approves the Judean lowlands site on Tuesday, the next step will be to obtain further tests to determine environmental impact.

IEI said in response: “The opinion claiming that there are gaps in information will be addressed in the framework of the next portions of the environmental impact report. These sections have not been submitted so far as per the request of the Environmental Protection Ministry.”

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