What if Moses had made a right turn?

According to the old joke, if Moses had turned right when he led the Jews out of the Sinai Desert after 40 years of wandering, perhaps the Jewish people, rather than the Saudi Arabians, would be sitting on large oil reserves.

But an American oil company is convinced that Moses may not have been wrong after all. It is betting millions of dollars on the hope that Israel actually has enormous amounts of oil inside its borders that could meet most of the country’s needs. The only problem? The oil is either trapped deep inside rock, in a compound known as oil shale, or located hazardously close to Israel’s freshwater reserves.

Environmental activists won an important victory on September 2 when the Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Committee denied a pilot program for a controversial new technology to extract oil shale in the Judean lowlands (Shfela) near Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem. But while the country was focused on the south and the war with Gaza over the summer, the Northern Regional Planning and Building Committee quietly approved a pilot for drilling in the Golan Heights.

An American-made drill is already in storage in Haifa, according to Afek Oil and Gas, the Israeli company in charge of drilling exploration in the Golan Heights. If everything goes as scheduled, the preparations for exploratory drilling in the Golan could start as early as September 28.

The Greens take the lowlands

The environmentalists have the momentum of a significant victory in Jerusalem on September 2.

The meeting in Jerusalem for the approval of oil shale exploration near Beit Shemesh lasted 10 hours. Pitting environmentalists against Israel Energy Initiatives, the company that wants to extract the oil shale, the meeting was filled with highly technical presentations about oil engineering, thermodynamics, and a process called “In Situ Thermal Recovery,” which involves drilling heater wells down to the oil shale layer.

In this process, over a period of three years, the rock is heated to a temperature of over 300° Celsius. This abridges the geological process that would normally take place over hundreds of years. As the temperatures rise in the rock, liquid oil and natural gas are released, which, after a condensation period, would produce about two-thirds liquid oil and one-third natural gas. Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI) estimates that there are approximately 40-60 billion barrels of oil located 200-400 meters below the surface of the Elah Valley. IEI said that the process, an experimental one, will not endanger the environment because most of the work would take place underground, leaving a very small footprint. Additionally, it says impermeable rock layers above and below the oil shale level will protect the underground water tables.

But the Jerusalem Regional Committee was not convinced.  The main concern was that the In Situ Thermal Recovery technology has never been used at other locations in the world, and the committee was reluctant to approve the use of untested technology. After 10 hours of discussion, the committee nearly unanimously rejected the pilot program; only one representative from the Energy Ministry, who is not normally a member of the committee and was added for the discussion of the project, voted in favor.

Environmentalists were thrilled with the decision. Environmental justice organization Adam Teva V’Din, which brought petitions against the project, compared the victory to David overcoming Goliath — an ancient battle that was believed to have taken place in the same area as the thwarted pilot project.

Environmentalists had worried that if the pilot were approved, it would be nearly impossible to stop the commercial extraction of oil shale. “The brave ruling proves that a committed and professional group of citizens can stand together against overwhelming odds and successfully defend their environment, their health and their heritage against those who would harm them all in the name of profit,” the organization said in a statement after the ruling.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which has been steadfastly opposed to drilling, called the decision “an important victory for the next generation.”

“Our children can be sure that the natural resources of Israel will be protected and they can use them in the future if they need to,” said a spokesman for the ministry. “We cannot carry out dangerous experiments that endanger the health, the environment, and the energy security of future generations.”

A Green Way environmental protest against the Shfela drilling project outside the Jerusalem Regional Committee meeting on September 2. (Courtesy: Green Way)

A Green Way environmental protest against the Shfela drilling project outside the Jerusalem Regional Committee meeting on September 2. (Courtesy: Green Way)

Israel Energy Initiatives is still licking its wounds, but a spokesman insisted that the company has not given up hope of extracting oil shale from the area. “The company is waiting to receive the full text of the committee’s decision, and after that time we will weigh various options toward the best course of action to implement the pilot in the licensed area, under close supervision from regulators and with an emphasis on protecting the environment,” he said.

Dr. Orr Karassin, an environmental policy expert who heads the Sustainable Development Committee of the board of directors at Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (Jewish National Fund) and was a leader in the fight against the Shfela project, said that IEI’s future hopes of drilling in the Shfela are very low after the committee decision. There is a “slim to scarce” chance that a legal fight against the decision could be successful, since the regional committee followed all protocol.

“I don’t think they have a basis in administrative law to criticize the decision of the regional committee, which was taken both according to regulatory capacity and also in a very open and participatory matter,” said Karassin.

But the environmentalists didn’t have long to celebrate. The war they had just won outside of Jerusalem had already started again in the Golan.

Northern hopes

On September 11, the Northern Regional Planning and Building Committee approved a project for exploratory drilling in the Golan Heights. The area approved is 396 square kilometers, starting in Katzrin and extending southward. Not all of that land — 33% of the 1,200 sq km that make up the Golan Heights — will be used exclusively for oil drilling, as each well has an average footprint of seven dunam (1.7 acres). The area for exploration just delineates areas where Afek has permission to drill.

The exploration program allows Afek to drill 10 wells in order to search for oil, which its experts believe exists in a conventional liquid form and not the oil shale compound found in the Shfela. However, they won’t know until they drill. The company is not yet sure what exactly it will find, or even if it will find oil at all.

“We have a real risk. It could be that we drill our well and it’s dry and there’s no recoverable resource,” acknowledged Geoffrey Rochwarger, the CEO of Genie Israel, the parent company of Afek.

Genie is also the parent company of Israel Energy Initiatives, though the Afek and IEI operate independently of each other, and Rochwarger insists that the failure of the Shfela plan was not any sort of harbinger for the Golan exploration.

Genie Energy, which is chaired by Howard Jonas, has some heavyweight investors. Former US vice president Dick Cheney, Michael Steinhardt, Jacob Rothschild, and Rupert Murdoch are all reportedly connected to the company. It also has connections within the Israeli political establishment: The chairman of Genie Israel is Effie Eitam, a former member of Knesset who also served as the minister of national infrastructures in 2002-2003.

Afek will invest a total of around $30 million just in the process to get the oil exploration approved, said Rochwarger, and he is aware that the oil wells could turn up dry. Since Israel’s founding, companies searching for oil across Israel have drilled 530 exploratory wells, and none of them has turned up commercially viable oil, he said. But Rochwarger feels confident that his company’s geologists have identified areas where this trend will be reversed.

The Amerian-made drill that will be used for exploratory drilling is currently in storage in Haifa. (Courtesy: Afek)

The American-made drill that will be used for exploratory drilling is currently in storage in Haifa. (photo credit: Courtesy Afek)

“It could be that when we drill the exploration well there will be something, but once it’s brought out and extracted it will require a lot of refinement that will cost a lot of money and it may not be commercially viable,” said Rochwarger. “Or, it could be that when we do exploration, we’ll find something that does make sense. That’s why the exploration process for us is so important.”

“We need to understand whether or not this resource exists,” Rochwarger continued. “It’s a requirement based on what is happening in the geopolitical sphere today. It’s our responsibility as a country to answer whether or not we have this resource.” He noted that a lot of Israel’s energy dependence comes from nations where diplomatic relations have deteriorated in recent years, such as Turkey. Additionally, with the Sheshinski commission recommending a possible 67-percent tax on oil revenue, a viable find could be an enormous money maker for the government, Rochwarger added.

Rochwarger, who made aliya with his family from New Jersey more than a decade ago in order to direct Genie’s work in Israel, believes fervently that energy independence is essential to Israel’s security and development. Energy independence is the new Zionism, Rochwarger says, and we won’t know if it’s possible until we look.

Keeping it clean

“Come on, give me a hug while I’m still clean, before it’s too late!” A tall blond man dressed up as the Sea of Galilee stood on the steps of the government office complex in Tel Aviv last week, trying to force wary passersby into an awkward embrace while wearing a cardboard cut-out of the lake’s outline. Two dozen activists from the Green Way environmental group demonstrated behind him, calling for Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Silvan Shalom (Likud) to stop the Golan exploration project.

“Have you heard about the drilling project in the Golan?” activists armed with clipboards and flyers asked people hurrying by during the Wednesday afternoon rush hour. No one had, despite the scheduled start to the exploration in only a few weeks.

A Green Way activist dressed as the Kinneret offers free hugs to passersby during a demonstration on September 10. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

A Green Way activist dressed as the Sea of Galilee offers free hugs to passersby during a demonstration on September 10, 2014 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“They’re experimenting with water that belongs to all of us, just for the possibility of maybe getting oil,” lamented Adam Sternberg, the national spokesman for Green Way.

“I am not surprised [by the approval for the pilot], because this is how things happen in this country: People in control of the government are making shady deals with rich companies,” said Raz Unger, a 25-year-old landscape architecture student who lives on a kibbutz near Tel Hai University and is a Green Way activist. “If they find oil — and that’s a big if — where will the money go? Not to me or you and certainly not to the Golan residents. We’re in favor of renewable energy,” he explained. “There is plenty of sun and wind in the Golan. Don’t destroy the Golan, an area that is so beautiful and so beloved by all of Israel,” he pleaded.

During the 60-day period of the approval process — when the public could file opposition to the project — activists and Golan residents filed 900 public oppositions to Afek’s drilling plans.

A young girl at a protest on September 10 against exploratory drilling in the Golan. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

A young girl at a protest on September 10 against exploratory drilling in the Golan. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“The central reason we’re against it is our concern that it will damage the health of both people and the environment,” said Keren Halperin-Musseri, a lawyer and the deputy director of Adam Teva V’Din, the environmental justice organization that filed an opposition paper to the project. “The biggest health concern, of course, is our concern about polluting the Sea of Galilee… If just a little bit of oil gets out, it could pollute the entire Sea of Galilee. This is also a seismically sensitive area,” she added.

Activists contend that even a small amount of oil seeping into the underground water table could eventually reach the Sea of Galilee — actually a lake — and make Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir undrinkable.

On June 19, in another marathon meeting, the Northern Regional Committee bundled together the major complaints by subject, dealing with issues like contamination of the Sea of Galilee, underground aquifers, air pollution, ground pollution, noise pollution, damage to small businesses like agriculture and tourism, or the possibility that oil exploration could lead to more harmful practices like fracking. Another objection was that the Israel Oil law, which deals with oil exploration, dates from 1952 and is severely outdated given the current technologies.

The committee, made up of representatives from the ministries of Environmental Protection, Agriculture, Health, and Justice, and local government representatives, rejected almost every complaint and concern. The only demand it partially accepted was the need to ensure greater public oversight of the project. The oil law, committee members contended, was updated sufficiently in 2012.

In the end, five members of the committee voted for the project, two opposed it, and two abstained, though it took almost two months for the vote to become final due to various bureaucratic processes and Operation Protective Edge.

“After the project was discussed in the committee and all of the oppositions were heard and taken into account, including the environmental issues of water and air quality in the area, it was decided that the project complies with all of the law’s provisions, including the approval of environmental authorities and support from the Water Authority, [and so] the committee has decided to approve the drilling permit,” said Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach in a statement on July 24. The decision to approve the exploration became final on September 11.

Environmentalists slammed the Northern Regional Committee’s approval, which they said was obtained in underhanded ways that did not reveal the large area that was being approved for exploration until the approval process had reached advanced stages. “This is a very grave case of rejecting public participation [in a decision] to give an oil company [licensed access to] public and agriculture land,” said Karassin.

“The Northern Regional Committee did not have information about the company’s future plans,” said Karassin. The approval is only for an exploration program, since the company does not yet know which method it will use to commercially produce oil. “The committee looked at [Afek’s] request in a very narrow prism. In the Jerusalem Regional Committee, the broader expectations in the plan were better understood. Here, that has remained unclear. The decision was taken with limited knowledge and perspective.”

Rochwarger accused the activists of sowing unsubstantiated fear among the public. “We are very sensitive about the water [of the Sea of Galilee], because we’re drinking the same water,” he said. “We have done tons of research, we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money and received every single required check, every single committee that was required to review and approve what we were planning to do for oil exploration, including the Water Authority. They all signed off to say there is no danger of contaminating or coming into contact with any part of water in the Golan.” He added that the company could not present its future plans because it does not yet know how it would extract the oil.

Dry run

So what happens now?

There are still two ongoing petitions at the High Court of Justice against the Golan drilling project, one from Adam Teva V’Din and another from the owner of a vineyard next to the first proposed drilling site, which must be resolved before Afek can begin work on the ground.

For the next month, even while the petitions are pending, Afek will complete necessary fieldwork, including surveying the area and moving all the equipment to the site. Preparations for drilling could begin as early as September 28, depending on whether the High Court of Justice dismisses the two petitions or freezes Afek’s work while the petitions are ongoing.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is also carrying out its own research about the proposed drilling sites, and is waiting for experts’ input before taking a public stand, a spokeswoman for the ministry said.

If it receives the green light from the court, Afek will start exploratory drilling at a site called Oil 5, which is located next to the town of Avnei Eitan, southwest of two reservoirs and in between two small rivers. The drilling at the first site will last two to three months, to a depth of 1,200 to 2,000 meters. If it discovers oil, Afek will use a variety of techniques to remove the oil and explore the possibility of commercial production in that area. Then it will cover the well to remove physical evidence of its existence, and move on to the next exploratory drill site. The exploratory stage is expected to take two to three years.

An infographic from Afek explains how exploratory wells will be drilled. (Courtesy: Afek)

An infographic from Afek Oil and Gas explains how exploratory wells will be drilled. (photo credit: Courtesy Afek)

The Northern Regional Committee approved ten exploratory wells. If Afek discovers oil and wants to go into commercial production at any of these wells, it will need to go through the approval process again, which would give activists another opportunity to file public oppositions. But activists are worried that once the exploration goes forward, if oil is discovered, they will be powerless to stop the relentless advancement. For the activists, stopping the exploration before it starts is the foremost goal — something they accomplished in blocking the Shfela pilot project, but have failed thus far to achieve with the Golan project.

“It’s impossible to talk just about the first step, as if we’re just looking at something small and specific,” said Halperin-Musseri, of Adam Teva V’Din. “The goal [of Afek] is to get to the next step [of commercial production]. We must talk about the next step and what damage there’s going to be and decide if there’s even a reason to start this process if it’s so dangerous.”

She added that after the exploration process, Afek would be able to place a huge amount of pressure on government decision-makers, showing how much money the company has already invested, and how much the government could stand to gain.

“[Winning in the Shfela provided] a very dominant sense of satisfaction,” said Karassin. “This was a really important day for Israeli democracy and responsible, participatory government, especially given the fact that decisions was made on scientific rather than political considerations. It was also an achievement from an international perspective. Oil shale companies have been very successful in the Western world, and Israel is one of the first countries, if not the only country, that has said no to oil shale development.”

“On the other side of the coin, I am kind of in awe that the license to [conduct exploratory drilling in] the Golan was hidden to the public until very recently. This is something no one knew about,” said Karassin.

While the public had a chance to file oppositions to the project during the public comment period, and ended up filing more than 900 complaints, the activists knew very little about the proposed exploration before this summer, she said.

“There is also a hope that the Northern Regional Committee will learn a lesson from what happened in [in the Shfela], and will take a second look,” said Karassin. “Either they will do so on their own,” she vowed, “or they will be forced to do so.”