Green groups gear up for fight as oil pipeline looks to pump up Eilat operations

Secretive state company said to be pressuring ministries, Prime Minister’s Office to more than double quota of crude that can be transferred via Red Sea terminal

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An oil tanker docked at the Europe-Asia Pipeline Company's port in Eilat from May 28 to 30, 2023.  (Courtesy, Zalul)
An oil tanker docked at the Europe-Asia Pipeline Company's port in Eilat from May 28 to 30, 2023. (Courtesy, Zalul)

Fourteen environmental and public health groups reactivated an emergency campaign Monday to battle a feared government decision to more than double the amount of oil that a state-owned pipeline company can bring through Israel.

The move follows reports of significantly raised tanker activity at the Europe-Asia Pipeline Company’s port in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, indicating it may be nearing an annual two million ton (around 14.6 million barrel) cap on the quantity of crude that can be brought to Israel, if it has not already been breached.

EAPC is reportedly pressuring government ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office to increase its quota to five million tons (36.65 million barrels).

Yossi Shelley, the current director of the Prime Minister’s Office, was due to meet with the National Security Council earlier this month to discuss whether the ceiling should be raised, but the talks were pushed off due to a security incident that day and have not been rescheduled.

EAPC often claims that its business is essential for Israel’s energy security. It told The Times of Israel this week that the oil unloaded at its ports was “mostly used by the Israeli energy economy.” In November 2021, EAPC’s chairman Erez Halfon told a Knesset committee that the Eilat port had “existential” importance for Israel. That claim was immediately rejected by the chief economist at the Energy Ministry’s oil administration.

The company, whose operations are shrouded in secrecy due to previous connections with the Shah’s Iran, operates a network of terrestrial pipelines originally created to channel Gulf oil from Eilat, on the Red Sea, to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean, from where it could be loaded onto tankers bound for European markets. The pipes extend to Haifa in the north.

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

In October 2020, just a month after Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed normalization agreements, EAPC announced a deal with Red-Med, a consortium of Israeli and Emirati businesspeople, to transport Gulf oil via the Eilat-to-Ashkelon pipeline.

The deal aroused opposition from environmental activists in Israel, not least because of fears that an ecological disaster could decimate the Red Sea’s renowned coral reefs and wipe out Eilat’s tourist and marine-based economy.

EAPC has been implicated in several cases of environmental damage. In 2014, 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.

Oil seeps between desert bushes in the Evrona Nature Reserve, December 7, 2014. (Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

Green groups have photographed and collected data on every tanker that has docked in Eilat.

Combining these photographs with open data from the MarineTraffic website and Knesset documents, the daily Haaretz newspaper reported on July 13 that the number of tankers filling up with oil in the Red Sea port had risen from five in 2020 to 10 in 2021 and 11 in 2022. Seven tankers docked at the port over the first half of this year alone.

Each tanker can hold around 300,000 tons (2.2 million barrels), said Mor Gilboa, Director-General of Zalul. “We think EAPC has exceeded the two million tons. The eighth tanker will definitely exceed it.”

Environmental protesters in Eilat against the arrival of an oil tanker on December 26, 2022. (SPNI)

In a series of articles published between March and July, the investigative website Shakuf reported that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, at least 29 ships had sailed from six ports in Russia to Haifa, where oil refineries are located, and Ashkelon, where EAPC operates a terminal. The ships were carrying oil, coal for the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera and chemicals.

The ships reached Israel by traversing the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles in Turkey to reach the Mediterranean.

Though the pipeline was initially meant to transport Gulf oil to Europe, according to Shakuf, ships arriving empty in Eilat are being loaded with oil bound for China, after apparently having been piped from Ashkelon.

Investigative journalist Dror Gurney said the number of tankers docking in Israel could be higher, given evidence suggesting that some ships had turned off their Automatic Identification Systems in the Red Sea, arriving in Eilat without any official registration, but identified and photographed by green activists.

The KITSOS oil tanker photographed by Zalul in Eilat where it docked from May 28 to 30, 2023. According to the Shakuf investigative journalism site, this vessel turned off her positioning system off the coast of Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai, when her tank was empty. The ship reappeared on the map four days later, with oil on board, off the coast of Orjada in Egypt, on its way out of the Red Sea. Shakuf could find no record of it docking in Eilat, but green activists photographed it there. (Courtesy, Zalul)

Turning off a transponder is a tactic often employed by smugglers or shippers seeking to evade sanctions.

The Foreign Affairs and Energy ministries told Shakuf that the Israeli government had made it clear that Israel would not become a “bypass route” for Russians seeking a way around American sanctions. The US Embassy told the site that it “worked closely” with Israel on the sanctions against Russia and would continue to do so.

EAPC is operated by the Finance Ministry, although the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority supervises the terminals.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is responsible for providing a toxic materials permit.

In September 2021, after EAPC had submitted what the Environment Ministry regarded as deficient environmental risk surveys, the ministry told the company it was limiting the amount of oil that could be brought in annually to two million tons.

It said it opposed taking on additional risks posed by expanding EAPC activity at the port and also capped the number of tankers that could dock at the terminal to six per year, but EAPC successfully torpedoed that rule as part of an agreement reached in court this year.

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)

The company unsuccessfully lobbied the previous government to overrule the ministry cap on the two million tons, and efforts to get a court to intervene also fell short, but EAPC has continued to pressure the government to raise the oil quantity ceiling.

Approached by The Times of Israel, EAPC accused former Environmental Protection minister Tamar Zandberg of introducing the restrictions “without any reasonable and in-depth professional examination.”

It noted that it was controlled and overseen by the government and described its activity as “essential to the Israeli energy economy and its continuous functioning.”

EAPC had initially requested permission to pump some 20 million tons (146 million barrels) of Gulf crude to fulfill the UAE deal.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said on Monday that its policy had not changed. It added that EAPC had not exceeded the two million ton crude cap.

The Energy Ministry told The Times of Israel that the Finance and Environmental Protection ministries were charged with overseeing EAPC oil shipments. “We are sure that the balance of these important interests will lead to a resolution of this issue soon,” it said.

The Finance Ministry said it would not comment.

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