Energy Ministry agrees on role for public in supervising natural gas

As protests continue against location of gas platform 10 km from shore, ministry green lights new monitoring body. Ministry research director: Rig poses lower risk than tankers

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The Tamar gas rig, located 23 kilometers (14 miles) west of the city of Haifa in northern Israel. (AP/Albatross Aerial Perspective)
The Tamar gas rig, located 23 kilometers (14 miles) west of the city of Haifa in northern Israel. (AP/Albatross Aerial Perspective)

As protests continue against the establishment of a natural gas platform just 10 km (6.2 miles) from central Israel’s shoreline, the government has agreed to set up a team with public representation to help ensure that emissions into air and water remain within legal limits.

The ministries of energy and environmental protection will also organize a series of round-table discussions to which a variety of interested groups will be invited, government officials said.

Meanwhile the Energy Ministry’s director of scientific research for land and sea, Dr. Einat Magal, wrote on Tuesday in the Globes business daily that the benefits of the platform outweighed what was a “very low risk.”

The ministry’s agreement to a public forum came in response to demands for increased transparency from two environmental organizations that support the platform’s controversial planned location — the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Adam Teva V’Din.

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

Together with EcoOcean, an NGO concerned with shoreline and marine environments, they stand opposed to a fourth veteran environmental organization, Zalul, which, together with local authorities and citizens groups, is campaigning for the gas to be processed on a floating vessel close to the wells, 125 km (78 miles) out at sea.

These protesters fear that a processing facility so close to densely populated areas of the country risks a major environmental and public health disaster.

With scientists divided over the issue, Prof. Richard Steiner, a world expert on marine conservation who advises governments and citizen groups about the impact of drilling and mining, told a press conference organized by the campaigners earlier this month that on the basis of the publicly available information, there was great cause for concern.

On Friday, the Times of Israel reported that the State Comptroller is looking into conflicting claims over the role that security concerns are said to have played in shaping the government’s decision to locate the processing ­­platform for Israel’s largest natural gas field discovered thus far so close to Dor beach, north of Caesarea.

Around the world, companies process both gas and oil either on land, on platforms near the shore, or on a floating vessel close to the wells.

People enjoy a warm Saturday at Dor beach, near Haifa, in northern Israel, on September 9, 2017. The Leviathan natural gas platform is set to be located just under 10 km (six miles) out from this beach. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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 waste water.

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.

Waste water that comes out of the well contains high concentrations of heavy metals mercury and lead.

Texas-based 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), which resembles a large ship.

While the gas is piped to shore from an FPSO, the condensate is loaded onto tankers to be taken wherever it is needed.

Following lengthy consideration by the National Planning and Building Council, however, the government opted for a processing facility on land. A large public battle ensued, and it was decided to locate the platform just off Dor beach, at the outermost edge of the underwater continental shelf.

But in November, public concerns grew after the Environmental Protection Ministry released a report showing that the Tamar platform’s emissions of potentially carcinogenic materials during 2016 equaled all such emissions from 570 large factories across Israel, including oil refineries.

View of the oil refineries in the bay area of the northern city of Haifa, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Plans are now afoot to equip the Tamar platform with the same closed emissions system due to be fitted at Leviathan’s platform, and new regulations for it will come into force in March.

But this rearguard action has failed to reassure the protesters.

“Given the concerns of the citizens, the fact that natural gas is a new industry, and the experience of Tamar, there’s a need for more supervision,” Adam Teva V’Din’s Director of Economy and Natural Resources, lawyer Leehee Goldenberg, told the Times of Israel.

The government team will include representation from the energy and environmental protection agencies, local authorities, and environmental organizations, she said.

It will meet relatively frequently during the establishment of the platform, which is due to arrive in Israel from Texas before the end of this year and to start operating by the end of 2019.

During the first two years of activity, the team will convene once every quarter, and after the first two years, twice a year.

The round table discussions will deal with energy-related issues, focusing initially on natural gas and Leviathan’s platform, Goldenberg added.

A key issue dividing the environmental NGOs relates to the legal status of the waters off Israel’s coast.

Israel’s territorial waters, up to 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) from the shore, are subject to all the laws that apply on land, including environmental ones. That is not the case in the Exclusive Economic Zone, whose boundary ends 322 km (200 miles) from the coast.

The Tamar platform, which became operational in 2013 and today provides 60 percent of the country’s energy needs, is located 23 km (14 miles) from the coast, just one kilometer outside the territorial waters boundary. The government’s ability to impose supervision there is limited, which is why it took so long for the Environmental Protection Ministry to realize that the platform’s emissions were so high.

BP’s FPSO (Floating, Production, Storage, Offloading) Schiehallion at Keppel Verolme Shipyard, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
(Arno-nl, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Zalul believes that far-from-shore processing would be safer all-round and that the government should extend the necessary regulations to the Exclusive Economic Zone.

The SPNI, Adam Teva V’Din, and EcoOcean counter that, given the time needed to push for necessary legislation and for Noble Energy to redesign the project, close-to-shore processing is preferable as it will allow for the closure of the dirtier, coal-driven energy plant at coastal Hadera, a roughly 30 minute drive south of Dor beach.

Their research, they say, indicates that the platform is not dangerous and that the focus should be on ensuring proper supervision of the platform and monitoring of its emissions once Leviathan is up and running.

Emphasizing that natural gas is not clean, but is cleaner than coal or oil, Leehee Goldenberg said that the government had not yet responded to the NGOs’ demand for constant, rather than periodic, emissions monitoring.

Leviathan’s draft emissions permit — as well as a stricter permit for Tamar — will be open for public comment in the coming months under the Clean Air Act.

Writing in Globes, Dr. Magal said the fuel people use at gas stations contains 10 times the concentration of benzene that exists in condensate.

If pollutants were to leak at the platform, they would either dissolve before reaching the shore, according to environmental protection ministry models, or — in extreme circumstances — would wash up at concentrations 100 times less than the maximum permitted, she went on.

A crude oil tanker ship (illustrative photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a tanker carrying crude oil. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Some 5,800 ships carrying some 4,000 tons of fuel anchor close to shore each year compared with 280 tons of condensate likely to be on board the platform at any one time, she added.

She noted that Israel imports an annual 75 million barrels of crude oil, with every tanker carrying around 100,000 tons of fuel — 350 times the quantity of condensate expected annually at the Leviathan platform — and that the fuel ships come closer to shore.

Experience showed that the number of oil spill events on floating vessels was “immeasurably higher” than those on fixed marine installations, Dr. Magal said.

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