Environmental activists opposed to exploratory drilling in the Golan won a small victory on Monday evening, when the High Court of Justice put a temporary freeze on the preparatory work at the first drilling site.
The site, in the southeastern part of the Golan, is the first of 10 possible places where Afek Oil and Gas is hoping to drill for oil in the next three years.
On September 11, the Northern Regional Planning and Building Committee approved a project for exploratory drilling in the Golan Heights. But immediately afterwards, environmentalist group Adam Teva V’Din, along with a number of local residents, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice claiming that Afek did not provide enough information about the methods it will use to extract the oil commercially. Afek countered that the company must first drill to determine the kind of oil in the Golan before it can submit a plan for commercial extraction.
While the petition is still undecided, Afek planned to begin preparation for the exploratory drilling, including surveying the area for the first drilling site and building fences, even though it was not permitted to start the drilling itself until the court resolves the case. On Monday morning, the first heavy machinery arrived on the site to start building the fence.
On Monday evening at 7 p.m., the High Court of Justice issued a temporary freeze on all of the preparation work at the site until the case is resolved.
“In light of the fact that the petitioners claim that the drilling work is about to start, and in order to avoid changes in the current situation, a temporary injunction is hereby given… which will not allow any changes to the facilities as they are or work of any kind to change the area or the borders of the area delineated in the permit,” Judge Neal Hendel wrote in his decision.
“We welcome this decision from the courts that stop this farce and will ensure an in-depth discussion about the question of whether to approve a project with dangerous consequences for the environment and our health that could be disastrous,” said Adam Teva V’Din executive director Amit Bracha.
The state still has another week to file its response to Adam Teva V’Din’s petition, so it is unlikely that the courts will rule on the case before October 6. Adam Teva V’Din photographed tractors at the site on Tuesday morning and accused Afek of continuing to work after the injunction went into effect.
A spokeswoman for Afek said the company respected the High Court’s injunction and explained that the tractor was still there in the morning because the injunction came after dark the previous day. The company would move it during the day on Tuesday, she said.
She added that Afek is certain that Adam Teva V’Din’s petition will eventually be rejected. “The exploratory drilling project in the Golan was examined and approved by a number of professional experts from the State, including the Water Authority, Mekorot Israel’s National Water Company, and others,” she said.
The exploration program allows Afek to drill 10 wells in order to search for oil, which its experts believe exists in a conventional liquid form. The area approved for exploration is 396 square kilometers, approximately 33% of the 1,200 sq km that make up the Golan Heights, starting in Katzrin and extending southward. Not all of that land will be used exclusively for oil drilling, as each well has an average footprint of seven dunam (1.7 acres). The area for exploration just delineates areas where Afek has permission to drill.
The company is not yet sure what kind of oil it will find, or even if it will find oil at all. Environmentalists are concerned that the kind of oil found may require environmentally harmful procedures for extraction, including fracking.
The exploratory stage is expected to last for two to three years. If Afek wants to go forward with commercial extraction, it will need to go through an additional approval process.
During the 60-day period of the approval process for the exploratory drilling project, activists and Golan residents filed 900 public oppositions to Afek’s drilling plans. The Regional Planning and Building Committee rejected nearly all of them.
“It’s impossible to talk just about the first step, as if we’re just looking at something small and specific,” Keren Halperin-Musseri, a lawyer and the deputy director of Adam Teva V’Din, told The Times of Israel earlier this month. “The goal [of Afek] is to get to the next step [of commercial production]. We must talk about the next step and what damage there’s going to be and decide if there’s even a reason to start this process if it’s so dangerous.”