Environment Ministry limits tankers allowed into Eilat under UAE pipeline deal

Marine Protection Unit says state pipeline company continues to disregard environmental concerns, presents inadequate risk survey for second time

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

An oil tanker docks at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company port in Eilat in southern Israel, on May 4, 2021. (Shmulik Taggar)
An oil tanker docks at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company port in Eilat in southern Israel, on May 4, 2021. (Shmulik Taggar)

The Environmental Protection Ministry is holding up implementation of a controversial oil deal between the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) and an Israel-United Arab Emirates consortium by limiting the number of Gulf tankers that can dock annually in Eilat to a maximum of six, while the company is seeking a greenlight for 30.

According to a letter sent last week from the ministry’s marine protection unit director Rani Amir to the pipeline company, the decision — which also limits the amount of oil that can be brought in yearly to two million tons — was based on deficiencies in a second environmental risk survey provided by the EAPC. as well as a lack of adequate preparation for possible oil spills.

In July, Amir rejected the EAPC’s first environmental risk survey, saying that, at best, it failed to meet the instructions given by the ministry in January 2021, but that it more likely reflected “negligence and perhaps even disregard for our instructions.”

In last week’s letter, Amir said that there were still “significant gaps” between the ministry’s January instructions and the updated risk survey submitted by the EAPC earlier this month.

Of the many pieces of information that were missing, one related to data on mishaps and pollution events at sea or on land that had occurred on the company’s watch during the years of its activity in Eilat.

Just last year, for example, the company and others were convicted of harming protected nature in the Red Sea after damaging more than 2,600 corals off the Eilat coast.

The EAPC deal with the RED-MED consortium was made in a memorandum of understanding last October, whose contents have not been revealed. It remains unclear which, if any, government ministry was party to the details.

The agreement provides for the UAE to use Israel as a landbridge through which to channel crude oil destined for southern European markets. The oil is supposed to arrive in Eilat, on the Red Sea, and to be piped to Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean coast, for loading onto Europe-bound tankers.

Bathers at a Red Sea beach close to the Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s oil terminal in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The plan is opposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations and scores of scientists and Eilat residents, given EAPC’s poor environmental record and numerous past leaks — it was responsible, six years ago, for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history — and the importance of Eilat’s coral reefs not only to the city’s tourism and employment sectors, but also globally.

On Saturday, scores of Israelis demonstrated against the deal on roadsides and bridges throughout the country.

Given the breadth of opposition, an interministerial committee in the Prime Minister’s office has been tasked with examining the agreement. On Saturday, Foreign Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid pledged that the probe would be “thorough, deep and serious.”

Protesters against an oil deal with an Israeli-UAE consortium demonstrate outside Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s house in Ramat Aviv, on September 25, 2021. (Coalition Against the EAPC Deal)

Amir also criticized the company for failing to adequately model a serious oil leak in the area, or relate, as required, to a worst case scenario, such as an ongoing leak for a period of time, the letter continued.

It also said that the ecological analysis submitted suffered from “fundamental deficiencies,” providing just general information and “erroneous statements” and failing to connect oil leaks to the potential for marine environmental damage.

Amir wrote that the EAPC had only responded in July to years of requests that it establish an emergency station for oil spills that could cope with a maximum of just six tankers per year.

A piece of broken coral growing on construction piles in the port of Eilat. (Israel Nature and Parks Eilat District Ecologist, Dr Assaf Zvuloni)

Even then, the company had bought equipment and made only “the minimal, necessary preparations,” with the result that it had been given approval only until the end of this month.

The emergency preparations made to date were totally insufficient for coping with 30 or more tankers per year, Amir said, despite EACP’s claims to the contrary.

Furthermore, the company had only requested, and been given, a toxic materials permit for two million tons of oil annually, which could not be used for bigger amounts.

An oil tanker (circled in red) docked at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s port, close to the coral reef nature reserve of Eilat (seen in the foreground) in southern Israel. (Society for the Protection of Nature)

A permit would only be provided on the basis of EAPC’s Eilat port receiving up to six tankers, carrying up to two million tons of oil per year, the letter said.

The EAPC had earlier told the high court that the chances of an oil spill damaging the environment was “negligible.”

The EAPC did not respond to the letter nor comment on the ministry decision’s effect on the deal with RED-MED, responsing only by saying that the company is central to the state’s energy security, was committed to the environment and the safety of local residents, and operated according to the strictest local and international regulations.

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