Finance Ministry officials are proposing to speed up big infrastructure projects by limiting the Environmental Protection Ministry’s role in planning, restricting the public’s right to object, and allowing the Treasury to overrule the Agriculture Ministry’s forestry commissioner for refusing permits to fell protected or mature trees.
Environmental advocates point out that these and other moves will not only weaken public oversight but run contrary to the government’s stated aim — to be anchored in a Climate Law — of slashing global warming emissions by half by the end of the decade.
The country is already behind target. By the end of 2022, it was generating 9.2 percent of electricity from renewable sources, the Knesset Economy Committee heard last month, despite a previous government aim of hitting 10% by 2020.
The proposals are contained within a National Infrastructures Bill that forms part of the Economic Arrangements Bill (in Hebrew) that accompanies the state budget.
The Finance Ministry says the aim is to “remove bureaucratic and regulatory barriers” and speed up infrastructure projects in areas such as transportation, electricity and renewable energy.
Its blueprint also includes permitting polluting power stations to sidestep clean air legislation and allowing construction companies working on big infrastructure projects to make substantial noise at all hours, and in some cases, to exceed decibel levels permitted in law.
Tammy Ganot, Deputy CEO of the environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din, called the infrastructure bill “a declaration of war on environmental and climate governance in Israel.”
The Economic Arrangements Bill (of which the infrastructure recommendations form a part) sets out 55 reforms, in many fields of life, over 226 pages.
The bill must be finalized by next Thursday (February 23) and tabled for first reading in the Knesset by March 31, leaving little time for discussion. Together with the state budget, the bill must be passed by May 29.
The draft infrastructure bill attributes project delays to the involvement of too many organizations and government ministries.
It proposes that the government, on the finance minister’s advice, should select up to 10 priority national infrastructure projects. The suggested criteria for choosing them vary from serving “large populations” to being “urgently needed” or “expected to face substantial obstacles.”
Among the solutions proposed to speed the implementation of these projects are:
- Replacing Environmental Protection Ministry representatives on national and district planning committees with private environmental advisers appointed by the committees.
- Compelling the Forestry Commissioner to weigh not only the environmental aspects of cutting down trees but also the damage and rise in costs caused to the developer if a felling permit is delayed. Under the proposal, the commissioner would not be able to refuse a permit to uproot protected or mature trees if the Finance Ministry’s director-general, or the ministry responsible for the project itself, thought otherwise.
- Ditching the need for detailed plans and even maps relating to proposed priority infrastructure projects, and exempting ‘innovative’ pilot infrastructure projects from the need for any plans or permits.
- Removing the right of the National Committee for the Preservation of the Coastal Environment to review the impact of national infrastructure plans on natural landscapes and heritage close to the Mediterranean Sea or Red Sea or the Sea of Galilee.
- Banning local planning committee chairmen or engineers from issuing stop-work orders for violations of planning laws, or laws governing hygiene or business permits, without the approval of national enforcement officials.
- Automatically registering regular infrastructure plans (not defined as national priority) as approved by the government 14 days after the cabinet secretary has received them, unless at least three members of the government (today just one is required) or just one member with the prime minister’s authorization, asks for the plan to be brought to government discussion. No discussions would be allowed about national priority infrastructure projects, under the proposals. Appeals against district planning committees would no longer be a right, but would be subject to the agreement of the district planning committee chairperson.
- Allowing the Israel Electric Corporation to allow polluting power stations to circumvent the Clean Air Act to “ensure continuity of supply… for the shortest time possible.” The bill says that the Environmental Protection Ministry would draw up the necessary regulations, subject to the energy minister’s agreement.
- Permitting noisy construction work on priority infrastructure projects located in residential areas at any time up to the maximum level determined by law, and, during certain hours, allowing noise levels to exceed what is allowed.
The Environmental Protection Ministry is fighting two proposals in particular.
In a statement issued Wednesday, it said that allowing circumvention of the Clean Air Act could lead to serious harm to public health and air quality, and was also unnecessary. This was because emissions permits issued by the ministry within the framework of the law had no bearing on electricity supply.
The ministry also castigated what it called the “extreme” attempt to exclude its professional staff from national and district planning committees, saying that banning such independent consultants would inevitably lead to “uncontrolled and unbalanced development.”
It went on: “Behind every Environmental Protection Ministry consultant are hundreds of professionals, in all environmental fields.” Most hold advanced degrees and have specific areas of expertise, and together, offer a breadth and depth of knowledge that no private consultant could offer, it said.
The ministry also warned that allowing planning committees to appoint private environmental consultants would risk conflicts of interest, given that such consultants also work for private companies, sometimes representing those companies in objections to plans.
The move would leave excessive power in the hands of the planning committees, which, under the proposals, would initiate infrastructure plans, approve them and employ the environmental advisers, the ministry said.
The answer, it added, was to add budgets and personnel to enable the ministry to work faster. It said that it was surprised by the proposal to privatize the consultants, given that it had agreed last year with the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division that it would receive additional funds as part of the 2023-2024 budget to employ external environmental consultants who would work on the ministry’s behalf and under its guidance.
In what it billed as good news, the ministry announced Wednesday that following talks with the Finance Ministry, a new clause would be inserted into the bill to give emissions allowances to car importers. This would oblige them to gradually increase the number of electric cars brought in.
The ministry also said that the Treasury had accepted that the noise proposals needed tempering, although details were not immediately available.
Adam Teva V’Din accused the bill’s authors of having not attempted to examine or map all the real reasons infrastructure projects were being delayed, among them budget shortfalls, personnel shortages and lack of coordination between the bodies involved.
The organization’s Deputy CEO Tammy Ganot told The Times of Israel, “The draft National Infrastructure Bill, which the government wants to promote using the fast track mechanism of the Economics Arrangements Law, is a declaration of war on environmental and climate governance in Israel.
“Many of the clauses are unclear, ambiguous, and open to misinterpretation.”
Among other things, the bill’s provisions would limit the public’s ability to know and participate in decision-making on major development projects that would affect their lives, Ganot said.
It would also permit the continuation or increase of fossil fuel use and the uprooting of trees in an era of climate change, negatively affecting the economy and quality of life.
State budgets for 2021 and 2022 were passed in November 2021, after three years of deadlock left many government projects underfunded. The next budget will cover the two years 2023 and 2024.
Public comments on the Economic Arrangements Bill can be submitted by February 22, 2023, at 8 p.m.