Israel is ill-equipped for the new challenge of pumping large quantities of fuel from the sea and that could have extremely costly environmental and economic consequences. That is the conclusion that emerged from talks with a team of five leading U.S. government experts who met with their local ministerial counterparts in Israel recently to discuss environmental protection measures associated with gas and oil exploration in the Mediterranean.
The natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean undoubtedly constitute an economic blessing that will strengthen Israel's energy independence, replacing polluting fuels with a cleaner energy source. Nonetheless, the world, unfortunately, has vast experience with major leaks from oil rigs and accidents that have destroyed entire coastal regions.
When BP's oil drill in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in April 2010, 11 workers were killed in the blast and the oil continued flowing for almost four months. By then, the surrounding beaches and marine environment were decimated.
It is true that gas fields, such as those being developed by Israel pose a more modest potential environmental hazard than do oil wells. Still, some of the Mediterranean reserves reach 6 kilometers below the sea. It is not at all clear how so deep a spill will be abated if a similar disaster occurs once the wells become operational. Long before that, in a matter of a few months, the pumping of oil will begin directly across from Ashdod's beaches. Representatives of the Ministry of Environmental Protection who participated in a public conference with the American experts explained that at present, they lack sufficient personnel and equipment to address the occasional discharges from oil tankers that so frequently cross Israeli waters. Handling a leak from a deep sea oil well is far beyond their present capacity.
Perhaps the most pressing problem is legal: Most of Israel's new gas fields lie inside its economic zone, more than 20 miles from the coastline, and outside Israel's territorial waters. Notwithstanding Israel's economic rights, many Israeli laws are not in force in this area, and those which do apply are fairly anemic. In the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. had 70 inspectors that worked around the clock alongside a team of scientists with an extremely detailed and definitive regulatory infrastructure empowering them. And even so, it was not enough to prevent the disaster.
The American experts had the impression that Israel has no idea how much gas and oil reserves lie in its newly discovered fields before selling their development rights to the international consortiums. In the United States, by contrast, the inventory of off-shore petroleum is extremely comprehensive before the government initiates negotiations. Then developers pay for rights to start pumping up front, much like any real estate deal. It was not clear to them how the government of Israel allowed gas development without advance payment, exports without a clear picture of what they were selling or a program that would guarantee Israel energy reserves for decades to come.
Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau has spoken publicly with great fervor about the significance of preserving the marine environment while developing gas resources. But does not to mention the fact that Israel refuses to ratify the Off Shore Protocol to the Barcelona Convention, the regional treaty to protect the Mediterranean Sea even as the EU and other Mediterranean countries have long since done so. It is unfortunate, that while the State of Israel expects to earn tens of billions of dollars from the new wells, the treasury cannot find the relatively modest budgets to ensure the safety of the new fuel industry. At the very least, an additional fee could be charged the developers that would cover the lion's share of the cost of inspection.
The Mediterranean Sea is an extremely valuable but vulnerable resource. As a closed sea, its waters take a hundred years to be renewed. The sea provides more than a scenic landscape and recreational coast. With its desalination facilities up and running, a growing fraction of the country's drinking water comes from the Mediterranean. A major accident at sea will have enormous repercussions on land.
Perhaps for once, Israel can avoid its usual "everything will be alright" complacency which generally ends with a sanctimonious report by the State Comptroller after the disaster has occurred. Israel's government needs to wake up now and dedicate the necessary resources to close the knowledge gap and institute significant oversight of the wells prior to production.
Professor Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University is chairman of the Israel Green Movement