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Green groups claim victory, withdraw court petition against Eilat oil deal

Move follows state attorney’s opinion that the Environmental Protection Ministry had full authority to act against the agreement

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

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg is flanked by some of the many opponents to the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's deal to transfer Gulf oil, outside the High Court in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2021. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg is flanked by some of the many opponents to the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's deal to transfer Gulf oil, outside the High Court in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2021. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Three environmental organizations claimed victory on Thursday and withdrew their High Court petition against a controversial and highly unpopular oil deal signed between a state company and an Israeli-United Arab Emirates business consortium.

This came 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 against the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company, which wants to transfer roughly 14 million tons of Gulf crude oil overland from its terminal on the Red Sea, in Eilat, to its facilities in Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Environmental Protection Ministry strenuously opposes the deal, saying it will not approve anything that endangers the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Eilat, which is home to corals of world importance.

At issue is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed last year in the wake of the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel by the EAPC (formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co.) with MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-United Arab Emirates venture.

The EAPC has refused to divulge details about the agreement, and it remains unclear whether anyone in the government saw it before it was signed.

The deal is opposed by the former and current environmental protection ministers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the local coastal authorities, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations, scores of scientists, Eilat residents, and citizens who have been mounting weekly demonstrations throughout the country.

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)

The petition was submitted in May by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Adam Teva V’Din and Zalul. It called for the cancellation of the MOU on the grounds that it was neither discussed nor approved by the government, nor opened for comment from experts and the public.

Amidst mounting opposition, the UAE itself moved to distance itself from the deal, emphasizing that the government was not a party to the agreement and denying claims by the EAPC that its cancelation would negatively impact burgeoning bilateral ties.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said after the court hearing, “The result is clear, the policy of zero addition of risk in the Gulf of Eilat is supported by the state. We will stop the expansion of the EAPC’s activities. We won’t allow Israel to turn into a dangerous and polluting bridge for oil.”

Amit Bracha, CEO of Adam Teva V’Din, said that his organization would lead attempts to amend the EAPC’s franchise conditions to abolish its current right to keep its activities confidential.

Israelis 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)

An SPNI statement said, “At this stage, the legal process has been completed, but public action against the agreement will continue in full force to ensure that the agreement, so dangerous to the unique natural values ​​of the Gulf of Eilat, the city of Eilat and its residents, will not be implemented.”

A statement from the EAPC praised the decision of the environmental organizations to withdraw their petition, claiming that the consequence would be the implementation of the deal and reiterating past assertions that the agreement is of national and strategic importance to Israel and its energy security.

It said the company would continue its “ongoing professional dialogue” with the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The EAPC already faces severe restrictions in its activities.

In September, the ministry told it 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, as well as a lack of adequate preparation for possible oil spills.

Oil spill in Evrona, southern Israel, December 5, 2014 (Noam Weiss, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In November, it informed the EAPC that it would not be granting the necessary permits, citing concerns over possible leaks.

The EAPC has had major problems with its environmental record. Six years ago, it caused 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.

Its right to secrecy dates back to the early years of its predecessor, the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co., which helped to transfer oil from Iran, during the rule of the shah, to Mediterranean markets.

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