Environment ministry rejects bid by PM’s office to increase oil activity in Eilat

Ministry rebuffs request to dump policy aimed at protecting Red Sea corals, marine ecosystems, a move that could earn state company an annual $50 million more

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An anemone at the underwater observatory marine park, Coral Beach, Eilat, May 29, 2009. (Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)
An anemone at the underwater observatory marine park, Coral Beach, Eilat, May 29, 2009. (Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry said Wednesday that it had rejected a request from the Prime Minister’s Office to allow a controversial state oil company to increase the amount of crude it unloads in the southern port city of Eilat on the Red Sea for transportation overland to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea and shipment onto European ports.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company has a shoddy environmental record. Among various oil leaks, it was responsible a decade ago for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel. The reserve has not yet recovered.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is responsible for preserving Eilat’s unique coral reefs, which underpin a rich marine ecosystem and much of Eilat’s tourism industry.

The pipeline company has been fighting to reverse a “no-added-risk” policy — allowing activity only at a level of  environmental risk that is reasonable or acceptable — introduced by former environmental protection minister Tamar Zandberg to reduce the risk of another disastrous oil spill.

On Sunday, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yossi Shelley, sent Zandberg’s successor, Idit Silman, the report of an inter-ministerial team set up to review the no-added-risk policy, asking her to rethink it in light of opposition to it from the finance, energy, and foreign affairs ministries and the National Security Council.

Shelley’s move reflects an increasing trend of putting business interests above environmental protection and was welcomed by the EAPC.

Prime Minister’s Office director general Yossi Shelley speaks during a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in a statement that its position would not change.

Potentially lucrative deal

At issue is an deal signed between the EAPC and an Israeli-Emirati business consortium called MED-RED Land Bridge in 2020 to transport Gulf oil in overland pipes from Eilat to Ashkelon.

In 2021, the environment ministry told the company that it was limiting the number of Gulf tankers that could dock annually in Eilat to a maximum of six, while the company sought a green light for 30. That was because of what the ministry described as deficiencies in two environmental risk surveys provided by the EAPC, plus a lack of adequate preparation for possible oil spills.

Two months later, the ministry informed the EAPC that it would not grant the necessary permits, citing concerns over possible leaks. It later gave temporary approval for increased amounts of oil to be stored at the EAPC’s facility in Eilat so long as it is earmarked for Israeli use only.

At the end of 2021, green groups withdrew a High Court petition against the Red Med deal, after the State Attorney’s office told the court that, from the Justice Ministry’s point of view, the Environmental Protection Ministry had full authority to act as it had done.

But within months, the Finance Ministry was calling to review the no-added-risk policy, and in July last year, Shelley had an inter-ministerial team set up to study the issue.

The team’s report, obtained on Wednesday by the Ynet news website, said that increasing the flow of oil into Eilat within the framework of the Red Med agreement could bring the EAPC an additional $50 million per year. It added that the government does not agree with a total no-risk approach if an activity can yield benefits. Echoing oft-made claims by the EAPC, it cited the importance of increased oil imports for the country’s energy security and continuity of supply in emergencies, warning that the current policy could damage bilateral relations with the United Arab Emirates — a claim that was rejected by a senior official at the UAE’s embassy in Israel in 2021.

Guy Samet, Director General of the Environmental Protection Ministry, attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting in Jerusalem, December 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In April, after receiving a draft of the team’s report, Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Guy Samet responded that the team’s conclusions constituted “blatant interference” with the professional judgment of his ministry, and stood in contrast to other countries’ actions to reduce oil activities to protect coral reefs and sensitive marine environments.

The team’s report was riddled with inaccuracies, Samet went on, having relied on a national risk survey carried out 17 years ago (a new one is underway) and on information provided by the EAPC, which the ministry had already rejected.

Samet charged that none of the views of his ministry, experts on coral and marine ecology, local authorities, or environmental organizations were reflected in the report. Nor was a Foreign Ministry opinion that increasing the oil flow would contradict Israel’s pledges on climate.

An aerial view of the Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s (EAPC) oil terminal at Israel’s southern Red Sea port city of Eilat, February 9, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Calling attention to the risks of pollution posed by warfare, Samet noted recent damage to a naval shipyard in Eilat by a drone, apparently launched from Iraq. He said that had the drone hit an oil tanker docked at the EAPC port in Eilat, the damage to the corals and marine environment would have been irreversible.

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