As Leviathan gas platform prepares to start production, not everyone is cheering

While Texas-based Noble Energy invests heavily in charm offensive, coastal cities, environmental groups worry that rig so close to shore will damage quality of life

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

This picture taken on January 31, 2019 shows a view of the SSCV Thialf crane vessel laying the newly-arrived foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) west of the coast of the Israeli city of Haifa. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)
This picture taken on January 31, 2019 shows a view of the SSCV Thialf crane vessel laying the newly-arrived foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) west of the coast of the Israeli city of Haifa. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

With Israel’s largest natural gas field set to start commercial production later this month, environmentalists and residents living near the platform are as distrustful as ever of the company responsible for operation, worrying that their quality of life will be impaired.

Texas-based Noble Energy, whose main partner is Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Drilling Ltd, is currently conducting the pilot “commissioning” stage for the $3.75 billion Leviathan platform and pipelines. Commercial production is set to begin before year’s end for the local market, with exports starting shortly thereafter.

Ranked opposite Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd for many months have been a string of local authorities and the organizations Zalul, which seeks to protect the country’s seas and rivers, and Home Guardians. The latter was established to campaign against locating the platform close to Dor beach, north of Caesarea, on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast.

Noble Energy, which developed Israel’s first major natural gas field, Tamar, initially planned to locate processing for the Leviathan field near the wells on an FPSO (Floating, Production, Storage and Offloading), a large floating vessel. But the government changed tack and decided to build it just 9.7 kilometers (six miles) offshore, reportedly at the request of the navy and defense officials.

Israelis demonstrating close to the Knesset, Jerusalem, against a decision to locate the Leviathan natural gas processing platform ten kilometers from central Israel’s shore, June 12, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

Home Guardians may have lost the battle over the platform’s location, but continues to warn about what it sees as the dangers of pollution to sea, land and air.

Late last month, it called on those living close to the rig to evacuate the area during two planned eight-hour “running-in periods,” during which large quantities of gaseous emissions will be “cold vented” (pumped directly) into the atmosphere.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has said that the company can emit up to 49 metric tonnes (54 US tons) of NMVOCs (volatile organic compounds excluding methane, but including polluting substances such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide) during the commissioning period, including 153 kilograms (337 pounds) of carcinogenic benzene.

The Leviathan natural gas platform off the shore of Israel. (Albatross)

By comparison, during the first stage of commercial operation, annual emissions will be capped at 20 tonnes (22 US tons) of NMVOCs per year, including up to 120 kilograms (264 pounds) of benzene.

Noble Energy’s opponents cite the ministry’s belated discovery in 2017 that during 2016, emissions from Noble Energy’s Tamar rig that were “known or suspected to be carcinogenic” equaled the total of such emissions from 570 large industrial plants across the country, including the Haifa oil refineries.

Workers seen on the Tamar natural gas processing platform, 23 kilometers off the coast of Ashkelon, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

They also point to Noble’s variable record overseas. For example, in April 2015, parent company Noble Energy, Inc. agreed to a $73 million settlement with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the State of Colorado over “issues with vapor control systems” at Noble’s condensate storage tank batteries in Colorado.

Furthermore, according to a study published in October by the peer-reviewed Environmental Impact Assessment Review –– and rejected by Noble Energy — environmental impact assessments carried out for the Leviathan platform by the company “grossly” underestimated the quantity of polluting emissions, contained “a series of flaws,” relied on “overly simplistic” models and needed to be redone more professionally.

The process

After extraction, raw natural gas must be processed to separate the dry gas used by power plants to run their turbines from two other main components — condensate and wastewater.

Condensate forms when gas cools as pressure drops and it rises to the surface of the sea. Used in the oil industry, it contains dangerous and carcinogenic products such as benzene and arsenic.

Wastewater that comes out of the well contains high concentrations of heavy metals, mercury and lead.

Youval Arbel of the Zalul organization (Facebook)

Dr. Youval Arbel of Zalul told The Times of Israel this week that his organization was somewhat worried about wastewater that will be flushed into the sea after treatment, but was most concerned about the risk of a condensate spill from either the platform or the pipes, which could contaminate tens of square kilometers of sea or coastal land, shut down desalination plants and pollute the air.

Noble Energy had hit problems with an earlier experimental drill in the Leviathan area, he said. That drill had not reached gas or oil reserves, but had sent huge quantities of brine spewing into the sea which it took the company well over a year to plug.

The opposition, however, is not blanket. Neither the Society for the Protection of Nature nor the legal advocacy group Adam Teva V’Din have joined Zalul and Home Guardians in their battle. Indeed, Dr. Arieh Wenger, in charge of air pollution at the latter organization, said in an opinion last year that the benefits of the Leviathan project seemed to outweigh the “very small” risks of air pollution.

Arieh Wenger, responsible for air-related issues at the environmental group Adam, Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

The public has been consulted to a degree. The underfunded and understaffed Environmental Protextion Ministry — which has had to rely to some extent on Noble Energy’s models and predictions — held an open session on the draft emissions permit for Leviathan this year and included several of the demands in the final emissions permit that was issued last month.

The ministry did not, however, consult the public on the separate permit for the pilot period. Nor did it announce in advance when that pilot was going to start.

Charm offensive

In terms of global warming, natural gas is cleaner than coal because it emits 50% less carbon dioxide when burned. But it mainly comprises methane, which — if released into the air without combustion —  is some 70 times stronger than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Noble Energy — currently trading at $20.70 per share, down from a peak of $70.72 in June 2014 — has been investing heavily in a charm offensive.

Over recent weeks, together with Delek Drilling and the third partner in Leviathan, Ratio Oil Exploration, it has been running ads every evening right before the main news broadcasts promising a “vibrant economy and a healthier environment” thanks to natural gas. During the Sukkot holiday earlier in the fall, it even worked with the Jerusalem Zoo to include one of its promotional videos in its conservation-oriented Israel Aquarium. It has also been co-sponsoring conferences at the Hebrew daily Maariv and the English-language Jerusalem Post.

The company is quick to explain the background to the massive emissions from the Tamar platform reported by the ministry in 2017.

Asserting that the emissions never reached the shore, Noble Energy officials told The Times of Israel that there were no real relevant regulations in place when Tamar was designed in 2010 because of its location — 23 kilometers, or 14.3 miles, off the southern coast of Ashkelon, just beyond Israel’s territorial waters. As a result, it was agreed that the company would work according to Gulf of Mexico standards, which at that time did not take greenhouse gas emissions into account.

The officials said that the company has since spent $38 million on an emissions system for Tamar, operational since March this year, that captures methane and other gases and uses them in the fuel that powers the platform. A flare, erected on Tamar but not used prior to October this year, is also now operational.

Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd.’s headquarters in Herzliya. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It remains unclear why the ministry has not yet awarded the Tamar platform its updated emissions permit.

Concerns about emissions during pilot phase

Protesters worry about the clause in the ministry’s permit for the pilot “commissioning” period of Leviathan which allows Noble Energy to “cold vent” emissions for two eight-hours periods. That stage is expected to start in around two weeks.

Michael Grenz, Offshore Environmental, Health, Safety and Regulatory director for all of Noble’s projects outside of the US, explained that in order to pressure check the pipeline and platform systems, the company flooded the entire system with nitrogen — a gas that neither undergoes chemical reactions nor is flammable and is hence safe to use for testing.

Once the system has been tested and the processing equipment has been commissioned, the wells will be opened and natural gas will start to flow into the pipes that are still full of nitrogen, he continued.

That mix of nitrogen and natural gas would have to be cold vented (emitted directly into the atmosphere) because nitrogen cannot be sent into the natural gas grid system or be combusted with a flare; indeed it can extinguish a flare and stop it from operating. The cold venting, said Grenz, would cease as soon as the nitrogen content reached below five percent of the total mix.

Dor beach, near Haifa, in northern Israel, close to which the Leviathan natural gas platform is located, September 9, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Asked about emissions to date from Leviathan, Grenz said some minor cold venting had already been carried out, but that nothing had been picked up by two coastal monitoring systems in Maayan Zvi and Caesarea run on its behalf by the Sharon-Carmel Environmental Towns Association. (Home Guardians told The Times of Israel that during Leviathan’s first cold vent, the monitoring stations failed).

Grenz added that the Towns Association had agreed that its monitoring stations would provide the data that Noble Energy is obliged to provide within the framework of its emissions permit. It is that data that already appears on Noble Energy’s website.

The Leviathan platform is fitted with four layers of protection — two flare gas recovery units (FGRUs) which capture gases and use them in the platform’s fuel system, and two flares, which can be used to burn off gases in an emergency and during maintenance. In addition, according to Grenz, more than 400 gas and fire detection monitors run constantly on specific pieces of equipment. If two of those monitors are triggered in the same area, that part of the system will automatically shut down. Said Grenz, “The Leak Detection and Repair System that we have on Leviathan is the one of the most robust that Noble Energy has anywhere in the world.”

Binyamin ‘Bini’ Zomer of Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd speaks at a Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, Waldorf Astoria hotel, Jerusalem, December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked what kind of insurance Noble Energy has in case of accidents or negligence, Bini Zomer, Noble Energy’s VP for Regional Affairs, declined to elaborate on policies, only saying, “Our lease requires us to have certain levels of insurance that are in line with industry standards and we have all of those.”

As for public fears about a condensate leak, Grenz said that any spill would be minimal because in the unlikely event of a condensate leak, there is a series of valves at the wells — entering the platform, on the platform and exiting the platform — that would be closed to minimize a release.

“We also have a spill response program in the event of an accident,” he added.

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