New ‘fireball’ incident hits Leviathan gas rig as experts prepare to investigate

Amid latest glitch off coast, Energy Ministry hires consultants to work with engineers on getting to bottom of repeated problems on controversial rig

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Screen capture from a video of natural gas being burned off from the Leviathan natural gas processing platform, May 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Walla)
Screen capture from a video of natural gas being burned off from the Leviathan natural gas processing platform, May 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Walla)

Residents living near the Leviathan natural gas platform were alerted yet again to problems on the rig on Monday morning when a flare was used to burn off excess gas in a huge fireball, prompting demands to halt production immediately.

A flare is a gas combustion device installed on rigs to allow excess gas to be safely burned off following malfunctions and to prevent a buildup of pressure.

Yoni Sappir, head of Home Guardians, which campaigns against the rig and natural gas in general, said, “There have been around 30 breakdowns on the Leviathan processing platform over the five months of its operation. It’s an inconceivable and unacceptable situation.”

Sappir called on the government to stop Leviathan’s activity, thoroughly investigate the reasons for the repeated use of the flare, and publish and adopt the findings of a an engineering consultancy company, RPS, employed by the Energy Ministry last week to probe the situation.

On Tuesday, the ministry — which has counted 13 breakdowns between February 11 and May 31, announced that it was increasing supervision of the platform by employing RPS to work together with the ministry’s engineers “in order to conduct a thorough examination of the operation of the rig and its systems in light of the repeated faults there since it commenced operations at the end of 2019.”

The company and ministry engineers will begin their examinations on the platform on June 21. A few weeks after they finish, they will submit a detailed report on the state of the rig with recommendations for improvements which the the ministry says it will publish.

The Noble Energy control room on the Leviathan platform on December 31, 2019. (Noble Energy)

At the beginning of last week, the Energy Ministry’s Petroleum Commissioner ordered Noble Energy to stop all work related to its turboexpander, a kind of turbine.

The Leviathan platform, located some 10 kilometers (six miles) out to sea off Caesarea in northern Israel, began pilot production in December and commercial production in January.

Asif Izak, chairman of the the Sharon and Carmel Cities Association for Environmental Protection, said, “The continuing breakdowns on the Leviathan rig require immediate examination by the Energy Ministry, today, to examine how the rig is being operated in order to prevent recurrences that cause uncertainty and fear among the area’s residents.”

The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee was set to discuss the issue on Thursday, but the meeting had to be cancelled after lawmaker Sami Abou Shahadeh was diagnosed with the coronavirus, and the entire Knesset was shut down.

The Israeli Leviathan gas field gas processing rig near the city of Caesarea, on January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Noble Energy, which operates the rig, refused to elucidate beyond confirming that the flare had been activated and saying that it had updated “all of the relevant governmental entities.”

In a statement, it added, “It should be emphasized that this was not an emergency event and that gas production continued uninterrupted.  All of the onshore monitoring stations continued to show no environmental impact to the shore as they have done since natural gas production began from Leviathan in late December of last year.”

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