Keeping Israel’s Treasure Buried

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An aerial view shows the newly arrived foundation platform of Leviathan natural gas field, in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, Israel in 2019.
An aerial view shows the newly arrived foundation platform of Leviathan natural gas field, in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, Israel in 2019.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem / POOL New

Israel’s economy was dealt a severe blow last week. Were that blow to have come from Israel’s enemies, so be it. But it came from no less than Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, who announced that she was putting a stop to natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean for a year or more and that she would not consider for the time being expanding Israel’s gas exports. All of this is in stark opposition to the findings of an expert committee that recommended further gas exploration in the Mediterranean.

What does Elharrar’s decision resemble? It’s like someone finding buried treasure in their backyard and then telling her family she has decided to leave it in the ground and not use it. She won’t help their kids purchase an apartment or help pay their tuition, and she won’t take care of the family’s medical bills. What exactly are we to think of such a person?

Our buried treasure is natural gas in the Mediterranean. In Europe, the price of gas has jumped to $25 per BTU, while here in Israel it’s just $4.50. This has happened thanks to the natural gas framework agreement that enabled the development of the Leviathan field. A cult of charlatans had opposed the framework and, had it been up to them, we wouldn’t have natural gas today. We would have had to import expensive liquid natural gas and that would have doubled the cost of electricity.

According to forecasts released by the European Union, demand for natural gas in the bloc will remain high until 2050. In other words, our treasure has an expiry date. So why should we wait, Honorable Minister? In order for the value of natural gas to decline, for it to reach zero?

Israel today has three natural gas fields (Tamar, Leviathan and Karish-Tanin) that supply all our domestic needs. The argument, therefore, is about exports, and exports are good. Gas exploration, drilling and sales create an honorable income for many. Moreover, 50% of the profit is paid as a tax. And with that tax we can invest in education, health, infrastructure and welfare. What is so bad about that, Honorable Minister?

Elharrar claims that gas exploration will come at the expense of increased usage of renewable energy, which in Israel, for all intents and purposes, is solar energy. That is an absurd claim. The Energy Ministry is not involved in exploration. All it does is provide exploration licenses for private companies such as Greece’s Energean, America’s Chevron and Israel Ratio. The state doesn’t invest a shekel in exploration, so there is no contradiction between natural gas exports and promoting solar power usage for domestic consumption.

During her first six months in the job, Elharrar showed that she understood the issue. She said that while she wanted to invest in renewable energy, “there’s no magic solution that will lead us tomorrow to renewables.” She even noted that the energy crisis in Europe proved the importance of Israel preserving a mix of fossil fuels and renewables. In doing so, she tacitly expressed support for the development of new natural gas reserves alongside the growing use of solar energy. But green groups attacked her aggressively until she capitulated and began to sing the tune they want to hear. Populism has won the day, and the economy has lost out.

Just like the cult of gas charlatans, Elharrar herself has begun to denounce natural gas. But the truth is that it is a stable and necessary source of energy for Israel, which can’t rely on solar energy alone. Thanks to natural gas, which replaced polluting fuels, such as coal and low-quality fuel oil, air pollution from electricity generation in Israel has declined by 80 percent! Many Israelis owe their lives to this. Moreover, the use of natural gas has decreased emissions of greenhouse gasses by around 40 percent.

Neither should anyone forget either that solar energy also comes with an environmental price. Solar farms eat up land and use harmful batteries for energy storage. Elharrar should know that exporting gas from Israel to Jordan to Egypt and someday to Europe will replace polluting coal-fired stations with gas facilities – and that this will further contribute to reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions around the world.

The United States is now frantically looking for natural gas to export to Europe, and Norway is doing the same. When they find treasure in their backyard, countries like the United States and Norway use it for the public good. But with Elharrar, populism has won out, and she’s ready to let the treasure can stay in the ground. We will pay the price.

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