The Environmental Protection Ministry said the start of operations Tuesday at a gas rig off Israel’s northern coast did not cause an increase in air pollution levels, despite concerns by thousands of local residents and activists.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin urged Israelis in a radio interview to drop the “hysteria” over the rig and celebrate, saying Israel “just became an energy power.”
“The first venting and trial-run process of the Leviathan drilling platform has finished. There is no rise or deviation in the [pollution] monitoring data,” Elkin said in a ministry statement.
After gas began flowing early Tuesday at the Leviathan offshore field, workers carried out a “venting” process to release the nitrogen in the pipes and test the rig ahead of the start of full operations later in the day.
During the venting, the ministry said large amounts of hydrocarbons, including benzine, were released into the air.
“The actual extent of the [hydrocarbon] emissions… was significantly lower than the amounts that were estimated before conducting the venting,” it said, adding the amount of benzine in the air was similar to recorded levels over the past month-and-a-half.
Concerns over the launch of the gas rig prompted thousands of Israelis on Tuesday to leave their homes, claiming that they faced dangerous levels of pollution.
Despite the assurances from the ministry, anti-pollution activists fighting to move the platform further from Israel’s shores alleged a government cover-up of pollution data and began raising money to establish a non-governmental pollution monitoring system.
The claims of a cover-up came to the fore in the morning, when tens of thousands of residents of Israel’s north, from Hadera to Haifa, were urged to check the pollution monitoring websites of the Environmental Protection Ministry and local councils to verify that the flow of gas did not lead to raised levels of dangerous pollutants in the air and water.
The websites crashed, sparking a furor on activist Facebook groups. When the monitoring websites went back online a short time later, no dramatic spike in pollution levels had been revealed.
Some activists were unimpressed, warning that the government data could have been tampered with. They launched a crowdfunding effort (Hebrew page here) to try to build their own pollution monitoring infrastructure.
The effort had already garnered 1,096 donors and NIS 230,339 ($66,600), still short of the NIS 1 million ($290,000) goal.
Speaking with Army Radio on Tuesday evening, Elkin dismissed the concerns of activists, while accusing lawmakers who joined a protest in Tel Aviv against the gas rig of seeking political gain.
“We proved the hysteria was unnecessary,” the minister said, urging the public “to trust the professionals.”
Critics “accused me of bringing Chernobyl to Israel,” Elkin continued, but insisted the launch marks an environmental achievement for Israel, helping to steer Israel’s energy market away from coal.
“It’s also a tremendous economic boon for Israel. The money coming into the state coffers goes to defense, education, welfare, health – it’s a new source of income the State of Israel didn’t have before,” he said.
Elkin and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz toured the northern coastline Tuesday to keep a close eye on the start of the gas flow.
Steinitz is due to travel to Greece on Thursday together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign an agreement on a pipeline to ship eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
“There’s reason to celebrate,” Elkin insisted, calling the start operations “a historic day.” He compared the concerns about pollution to unfounded hysteria 20 years ago over Bug 2000. “We just became an energy power,” Elkin said.
Asked about the high cost of the gas, with the interviewers suggesting that it was priced at double a fair rate, Elkin referred the question to the Energy Ministry. Nobel Energy officials insisted the price was competitive.
עדכון: השרים אלקין ושטייניץ, מנכ"לי המשרדים וצוותיהם, סיירו בשעות האחרונות בתחנות הניטור ובמרכז הבקרה של איגוד ערים שרון-כרמל. אלקין התייחס לתבהלת התושבים שברחו בשל הנישוב: "אני רואה את התושבים בהפגנה בתל אביב שמו מסכה, ובצדק- בתל אביב יש זיהום אוויר גבוה, >> pic.twitter.com/WAkzndCP1b
— יאיר קראוס (@yair_kraus) December 31, 2019
Tuesday’s tests came a day after the Environmental Protection Ministry said that Noble Energy and its partners had met all the necessary conditions to begin pumping gas, paving the way for the rigs to begin extracting the estimated 22 trillion cubic feet of gas trapped underground.
The first gas from the reservoir, the largest energy project in the country’s history, will reach Israel’s shores via the pipes within 24 to 48 hours from the start of production, the companies estimated.
A gas rig test planned for last week was scratched at the last minute because of concerns that the company had failed to meet the necessary criteria for the procedure. However, on Friday, the ministry gave the green light for the test early Tuesday, paving the way for turning on the spigots.
A petition earlier this month claimed that during a single eight-hour test, more pollutants would be released than in a year or two of regular drilling operations. Jerusalem’s District Court, however, ruled that the test could go ahead, as the petitioners had failed to provide professional testimony to refute the opinions of state professionals who deemed the test safe.
In October, a 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.
Shoshanna Solomon and Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.