Environment minister slams green groups as ‘charlatans’ over gas rig fight
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Environment minister slams green groups as ‘charlatans’ over gas rig fight

Stunning conference, Ze’ev Elkin devotes address to excoriating organizations for ‘deliberate distortion,’ especially those that campaigned against offshore extraction facility

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

Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin lashed out at some of the country’s leading environmental groups this week, accusing them of being charlatans who mislead the public.

Elkin, from the conservative Likud party, devoted his entire address Tuesday at the Environment2050 conference in Tel Aviv to attacking environmental groups, stunning many of the conference participants and drawing angry responses from green organizations.

Much of his broadside was aimed at activists behind a long-running campaign to have the processing platform for the offshore Leviathan natural gas field moved further out to sea from its current location, 9.7 kilometers (six miles) off Israel’s coast, opposite Caesarea.

The activist groups are guilty of “charlatanism, ignorance and sometimes even deliberate distortion,” he told the audience.

Amit Bracha, director of the legal advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, challenged the minister directly at the conference and later called Elkin’s comments “unworthy.”

“We suggest that the minister deal more with his role as leader of environmental issues in Israel and less with outrageous and irrelevant attacks against environmental organizations, which work day and night for the Israeli public,” he said.

Miki Haimovich, the Blue and White Party’s chief environmental advocate, also criticized Elkin for attacking groups instead of involving them and listening to the fears. She told the conference Elkin should have presented a vision and a program, not a tirade.

An Israeli protester takes part in a demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas field, December 31, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Last month, just before the $3.75 billion Leviathan project began producing gas on December 31, Texas-based Noble Energy, whose main partner is Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Drilling Ltd, conducted a pilot “commissioning” stage for the processing platform and pipes that included two sessions of so-called cold venting — emitting nitrogen directly into the atmosphere.

Fearful about pollution during the vents, thousands of coastal residents temporarily fled their homes.

The protesters had “promised us that we’d have Chernobyl here,” Elkin told the conference.

Those opposing the location of the platform include local authorities, the environmental organization Zalul, which seeks to protect the country’s seas and rivers, and Home Guardians, which was created specifically to fight against the platform’s location in the belief that it will adversely affect the health of local communities.

Accusing environmental groups of “deceiving the public on purpose” and “telling them lies,” Elkin said that the groups involved in the protests “promised us figures, that had nothing behind them. People from the ministries of environmental protection and of health told us these had no basis.”

Describing the campaign as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), he charged that it threatened to bring about a public loss of faith in environmentalism.

A view of the ammonia tank in Haifa, on June 30, 2017. (Flash90)

The minister, who, in environmental circles is widely viewed as lacking interest in the subject and doing little to advance it, singled out Zalul by name, complaining that the organization popped up in different campaigns — at one time against Leviathan, at another against a controversial Haifa Bay ammonia storage tank, which the Ministry of Environmental Protection finally closed in September 2017.

In connection with its campaign to close the ammonia facility, Elkin accused Zalul of issuing a “fabricated” document signed by some of the country’s most important scientists, who subsequently admitted that they had not read the report but had signed because they identified with the cause. Zalul had even convinced the courts to reach “zany” decisions which, at the time, threatened Haifa jobs.

“People talk without basis, without facts, by frightening the public,” he said.

The Leviathan gas platform, offshore Israel (Albatross)

Zalul responded by charging that there was a “huge leadership vacuum” at the head of the ministry, which “is supposed to deal with one of the biggest challenges facing humanity [climate change]. Elkin decided once again to stand on the side of polluting industry and to accuse the environmental organizations of failures, all of which have his name on them.”

Yoni Sappir, chairman of Home Guardians, said it was Elkin who had deceived the public by asserting that no onshore pollution was recorded after the cold vents. Sappir maintained that the reading was biased by wind pushing the pollution out to sea, while “huge amounts of pollution” were detected the day after the first venting session.

Lack of trust emerged again as a conference theme during a panel discussion about environmental regulation.

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Nir Kantor of the Israel Manufacturer’s Association Israel said Noble Energy’s attempts to convince the public that what it was doing was not dangerous to health had led to problems: For example, when a coastal pollution monitor had malfunctioned, locals had assumed that the company had tampered with it on purpose.

He urged dialogue between environmentalists and industry, because “we need to be on this ship together.”

To meet the challenge of climate change by simply closing down all polluting factories would close down the market, he warned. Business paid the country’s taxes and drove the economy and must not be allowed to collapse.

Amichai Fisher, who heads a unit within the Prime Minister’s Office aimed at making regulations more efficient, said the lack of faith between industry and the public was only getting worse.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any government-wide initiative to to tackle climate change, ministerial departments were bickering with one another and refusing to compromise, he added.

“The challenge is to find a way to work together, for systems to work together,” he said, citing the way that the government had taken a decision to tackle housing shortages by establishing a Housing Cabinet under the Finance Ministry along with  a special Planning Council and other measures.

Fisher was widely criticized last year for what were seen as attempts to water down the Environmental Protection Ministry’s authority to issue environmental regulations and to force it to weigh economic considerations in its decision-making.

Located in the Mediterranean Sea 125 kilometers (77 miles) west of Haifa, the Leviathan field holds some 22 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, and a potential half a million barrels of oil, according to estimates provided by the partners in the field.

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