Green groups ask High Court to halt secret UAE oil deal signed by state company

Deal signed by Europe Asia Pipeline Company with Emirati consortium ‘invalid’ because it wasn’t approved by government or opened for consultation with public, petition charges

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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

A secretive deal with environmental, health, economic and social implications for Israel, signed by a state company to channel Gulf oil through the country on its way to European markets, should be declared invalid because it was neither discussed nor approved by the government, nor was it opened for consultation with experts and the public, a High Court petition submitted Tuesday charged.

The petition was filed by three environmental organizations against the government, a string of government ministries, the Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC), the Eilat and Ashkelon municipalities and other state bodies. It relates to a memorandum of understanding signed in October by EAPC (formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co.) with MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-United Arab Emirates venture.

The MOU, agreed upon a month after Israel and Abu Dhabi signed a normalization deal, provides for the EAPC to transfer oil and oil-related products from its Red Sea terminal in Eilat to its terminal in Ashkelon on the southern Mediterranean coast, via a land-based pipeline that connects the two.

The deal is opposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry, 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.

Opponents have also drawn attention to the dangers that an oil spill at the EAPC port in Ashkelon could pose for the country’s desalination facilities, Israel’s main source of drinking water, as well as the risks of carcinogenic pollutants being released into the air during the loading and unloading of crude oil.

This picture taken on February 10, 2021 shows a view of marine life at a coral reef in the Red Sea waters off the coast of Israel’s southern port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The High Court petition, filed by Adam Teva V’Din, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and Zalul, charged that the MOU was signed without any proper procedure taking place, despite its potential to harm the national interest and to limit the government’s activity in areas such as its international commitments to reduce carbon emissions and its bilateral agreement with the UAE to work together to improve the environment.

Noting that a February appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to take action went unanswered, the petition asked the court to issue a temporary injunction to stop EAPC’s activity within the framework of the MOU and limit the number of tankers docking in Eilat until a ruling has been made.

The groups also want the government to be instructed to explain why the MOU did not require its approval in accordance with government companies law, or why the government has not ordered EAPC to ensure that the marine and coastal environment, as well as Eilat’s tourism and economy, are protected.  

“In light of the fact that this agreement was not brought before the government and certainly did not receive its approval, as required by law, it is invalid… Moreover, the agreement was signed in the dark and in violation of the public’s right to know, contrary to the positions of the Nature and Parks Authority and the Ministry of Environmental Protection,” the petition said.

Environmental activists gather for a protest at a parking lot overlooking an oil jetty in Israel’s southern Red Sea port city of Eilat on February 10, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“The government must have a proper discussion on the issue, on a full factual basis and after hearing the public’s views… The current agreement was formulated without factual basis regarding the environmental risks and while ignoring the past damages, of the very same activity,” it continued.

Most Gulf oil passes through the Suez Canal or Egypt’s Sumed pipeline, and in recent years no more than two or three tankers have docked at EAPC’s Eilat terminal, mostly carrying oil from Russia and Central Asia, en route to the Far East.

In recent months, though, the number of tankers in Eilat has increased.

An oil tanker docks in Eilat. (Courtesy, Shmuel Taggar, Desert and Sea Environment, Eilat)

A letter signed by more than 230 scientists in January said, “Coral reefs are considered, in terms of wealth and biodiversity, to be the underwater ‘rainforests’ of the world… The coral reef in Eilat almost became extinct in the 1970s due to the intensive operation of the then-EPA oil tanker terminal and has just about recovered over 40 years.”

Leaks can be caused by malfunction, accident, or “deliberate damage by hostile elements,” the petition pointed out, referring to a shadowy war that has been going in the Gulf with Iran and Israel apparently attacking each other’s ships. A leak of just one percent of a tanker’s hold of around 300,000 tons of oil could cause “irreversible damage,” the petition warned. “The potential for damage is enormous and the margins of safety are virtually nonexistent. ”

Crude oil covering the Eilat Coral Nature Reserve, 1975. (Yossi Loya)

Thanks to their genetic traits, the Red Sea’s corals are unusually robust despite rising temperatures in the Red Sea, and have not shown the fatal signs of bleaching seen in other reefs worldwide. They are also important for the environment and tourism industries of neighboring Jordan and Egypt.

It remains unclear who, if anyone, knows about the contents of the MOU, outside of the two parties that are signatories.

EAPC belongs to the Finance Ministry, though the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority supervises the oil terminals.

In a response earlier this year to a Freedom of Information request for details about the agreement submitted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Finance Ministry said that “the information is not in the possession of the Ministry of Finance.”

Oil pollution in the Red Sea off Eilat during the 1970s. (Yossi Loya).

Zalul submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Shipping Authority, asking among other things, whether and how environmental safety and regulation would be monitored at the two ports. It did not receive direct replies to its questions.

EAPC was established in 1968 as a joint Israeli-Iranian venture to carry Asian oil from Eilat to Europe via a network of pipelines that reach from Eilat to Ashkelon and up the length of Israel to Haifa.

Due to the nature of EAPC as a joint venture with Iran, the company’s operations are extremely secretive and even today, information connected to it can be censored by the Israeli military.

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