Environment Ministry issues Leviathan gas platform pollution permit

But Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd will not be allowed to start production before submitting detailed pilot program and erecting air quality monitoring stations, ministry says

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

The SSCV Thialf crane vessel laying a foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field, January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)
The SSCV Thialf crane vessel laying a foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field, January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

The Environmental Protection Ministry announced Wednesday that it had issued an emissions permit for the Leviathan natural gas platform.

However, it warned that the offshore processing rig would not be allowed to start operating until the Texan company Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd had submitted an acceptable pilot program and erected air quality monitoring stations.

“Without an approved pilot program, and without the establishment and operation of environmental air monitoring stations, in accordance with the supervisor’s instructions and the terms of the [emissions] permit, the facility will not be allowed to operate,” the ministry said in a statement.

The pilot program submitted by the company required “material amendments and changes,” the ministry said. Data it still had to provide included detailed timetables, a risk management program, a thorough account of the way emissions would affect populations on the coast, and “critical” deadlines.

The Leviathan natural gas field — the largest one found off Israel’s coast — is due to start production by the end of this year, according to the latest estimates.

Its processing platform has been built just 9.7 kilometers (6 miles) north of the coastal town of Caesarea, prompting concerns about pollution among communities living nearby.

Thousands attend a protest in Tel Aviv, against the plan to build gas rig 10 kilometers from the Israeli coastline on September 1, 2018. The signs read ‘don’t poison us.’ (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Last month, a prestigious 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.

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry. (Government Press Office)

Sinaia Netanyahu, the former chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry, whose post has not been filled since her departure more than 18 months ago, told The Times of Israel at the time that the new study’s findings were “very disturbing” and that public trust was “being compromised once again.”

The findings were rejected by Noble Energy, which said that it was installing technology on the platform that would keep emissions close to zero.

Pilot phase

In its statement, the ministry said it planned to supervise, monitor and “tightly control” what goes on during the pilot phase, which will last for two months.

Noble Energy had declared that 49 tons of NMVOC — volatile organic compounds excluding methane but including carcinogenic benzene — would be released into the air during that period, over two eight-hour periods. The company would have to “clearly publish” the various steps relating to these releases and inform the public accordingly,  the ministry said.

Furthermore, the ministry would insist that the company use the best technology for dealing with emissions and install flares to burn off polluting gases in cases of system dysfunction.

A flare on a gas rig. (Youtube screenshot)

The pilot period would start after approval of a pilot program, the ministry continued. But that approval had not yet been given because the program submitted by Noble Energy required so many “material corrections and changes.”

According to the statement, Noble Energy will have to monitor and sample air quality in three locations: the chimneys and any other relevant equipment on the platform; the periphery of the platform; and along the coast. Permanent monitoring stations will be set up in Caesarea and Maayan Zvi and will start operating before the platform comes on line. A third, mobile station will be established on the beach within the borders of the Carmel Coast local authority. All three will monitor sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, PM2.5 (the smallest pollution particles) and benzene.

All monitoring results will be made accessible to the public on the ministry’s website and the company will have to publish on its website the results of all sampling.

Public comment

The Environmental Protection Ministry held public hearings about the Leviathan emissions permit in August and published a draft permit for public comment.

The statement released Wednesday lists conditions of the permit that have been added or tightened in light of the public’s submissions. These include reducing allowable emissions during the first stage of production by around 30 percent, demanding fortnightly sampling of benzene around the edges of the platform for a year, and installing a thermal camera to monitor for leaks.

A marine crane vessel en route to Israel to set up the Leviathan natural gas platform 9.7 km (6 miles) from the popular Dor Beach, north of Caesarea. (Noble Energy)

The ministry rejected Noble Energy’s original application on the grounds that “in several cases” the company had provided “inaccurate and incomplete information.”

According to the statement issued Wednesday, the ministry even put Noble Energy in touch with an independent company experienced in offshore platforms to ensure that they provided the information required.

Guy Samet, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director general, said Wednesday, “After hearing the comments of the public [in August 2019] and taking some of them on, and after careful scrutiny, which also included rejecting [Noble Energy’s initial] application and calling for it to be amended, the emissions permit is expected to reduce the pollutants currently being released from the coal-fired power plant in Hadera. This is an essential stage in the transition of the Israeli energy economy to cleaner fuels.”

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