The Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday delayed a planned gas rig test that had residents of some coastal areas preparing to evacuate over fears the trial would release dangerous volumes of harmful pollutants into the air.
The test is a key step before a new rig 10 kilometers (six miles) offshore can begin pumping natural gas out of the Leviathan field in the Mediterranean, which is expected to transform Israel into an energy powerhouse.
Six local authorities had petitioned the court asking it to stop Noble Energy and its partners from carrying out the test before a study could be done of possible harmful effects of the trial.
The test had been scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday but the court-ordered delay likely means it will not be carried out this week.
Activists have threatened to organize an immediate mass evacuation of residents from affected municipalities south of Haifa, who would then march toward Tel Aviv in protest.
On Tuesday Judge Eli Abravanel froze an Environmental Protection Ministry emissions permit that was issued to the gas companies to carry out the test. A hearing on the test was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
In his decision Abravanel wrote that the defendants named in the petition, Noble Energy and the Environmental Protection Ministry, had not managed to dispel fears that the emissions would cause irreversible damage to public health.
Energy companies and the government say the planned test is safe and that they have expert opinions to support this, but in Hof Hacarmel and five other municipalities, mayors argue it will spread dangerous amounts of cancer-causing pollutants.
The petition claimed that during a single eight-hour test, more pollutants will be released than in a year or two of regular drilling operations.
The Hof Hacarmel Regional Council hailed the court-ordered delay and scheduled hearing as “significant successes” for campaigners, in a post on Facebook.
Local activists also welcomed the delay.
“People thought it was like a miracle of Hanukkah, a kind of hope in the darkness,” said Maytal Ben Sasson, an activist from the Shomrei Habayit group which opposes the rig.
She noted, however, that activists were unhappy with the government asking the court to move the hearing, initially scheduled for Sunday, sooner, seemingly at the behest of the gas companies.
“We feel like it’s a banana republic, where Noble Energy is running the show,” she said, adding that she remained confident that expert options to be presented to the court opposing the test would speak for themselves.
The energy companies, for their part, asserted that they would reassure the court that there is no danger and get the test back on track.
A spokeswoman for Delek Drilling said the Leviathan partners were reviewing the court decision “with the readiness and expectation of gas flow beginning as soon as possible.”
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said this week that gas could start flowing before the new year, signing off on a permit to allow exports to Egypt.
The discovery of Leviathan and other large offshore gas fields has spurred excitement by some in resource-poor Israel, which is expected to see billions of dollars in revenue from the energy extraction. However, activists have warned of environmental damage, especially along coastal areas opposite the rigs.
In October a prestigious scientific journal published an academic study that found that environmental impact assessments carried out by Noble Energy for the Leviathan platform “grossly” underestimated the quantity of polluting emissions, contained “a series of flaws,” relied on “overly simplistic” models and should be redone more professionally.
The findings were rejected by Noble Energy, which said that it was installing technology on the platform that would keep emissions close to zero.
Located in the Mediterranean Sea 125 kilometers (77 miles) west of Haifa, the Leviathan field is estimated to hold 22 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, and a potential half a million barrels of oil, according to estimates provided by the partners in the field.
Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. and its partners in Leviathan — including Delek Drilling LP, a unit of the Delek Group Ltd., and Ratio Oil Exploration 1992 LP — discovered the field, one of the largest deep-water natural gas finds in the world, in 2010. The project is the largest funded by private capital in Israel’s history.
The Leviathan partners have signed two “significant” export contracts with Egypt and Jordan, in a move seen as making Israel a regional player in the energy industry and boosting ties with its neighbors.