High Court gives green light to gas export
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High Court gives green light to gas export

Finance and energy ministers praise move to bypass Knesset in decision on energy independence; opposition MKs bemoan ruling

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)
An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)

The High Court of Justice on Monday backed a government decision to export 40 percent of the country’s offshore gas finds, rejecting demands that the matter be legislated in the Knesset.

The decision to reject the petition was reached by a majority vote, with only two judges – Elyakim Rubinstein and Salim Jubran – voting in favor of accepting it. High Court President Asher Grunis, Deputy President Miriam Naor, Justice Edna Arbel, Justice Esther Hayut and Justice Noam Solberg, on the other hand, opted to reject it.

The court began reviewing the case against the government decision to export 40% of Israel’s natural gas in August.

The petitioners, including several MKs, argued that such a significant matter must be legislated in the Knesset and not passed by the cabinet alone.

The petition was filed in June after the government announced its intention to keep 60% of the gas supply for domestic use and allow the rest to be exported. MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Avishay Braverman (Labor Party) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) signed the petition, as did former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

“This petition,” they wrote at the time, “is based on the foundations of the democratic system, according to which the authority to make policy decisions with a wide impact on Israeli society is given to the Knesset.”

MKs were quick to respond to Monday’s ruling, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) praising the court’s support for “legislation embodying the balance between the needs of the Israeli economy and our ability to provide for future generations and drive the Israeli economy forward.”

He added that the “certainty” afforded by the legislation would lead to increased investment in the Israeli economy and lower energy costs for factories, which in turn would create more jobs.

Greenpeace activists break into a natural gas facility near Ashdod, on Monday, June 3, 2013 (photo credit: courtesy greenpeace.org)
Greenpeace activists break into a natural gas facility near Ashdod, on Monday, June 3, 2013 (photo credit: courtesy greenpeace.org)

Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud), one of the major proponents of the legislation, also welcomed the court’s ruling, stressing that a substantial quantity of natural gas would still be earmarked for use in the domestic energy sector and that the decision would help develop and bolster the economy.

Braverman, the head of the Knesset Finance Committee, said he “respected” the decision and would work to ensure that the profits gained by exporting the gas would benefit all Israeli citizens.

“The Finance Committee will continue to monitor the government’s decisions regarding natural gas while safeguarding the public interest and the needs of Israeli industry,” Braverman said.

Yachimovich, the head of the opposition, said she “accepts” the ruling, but pledged to “continue the effective struggle for the country’s energetic and economic future, the general Israeli public and Israeli industry.”

Yachimovich counted lowering the cost of electricity among her main priorities, as well as “dismantling [billionaire] Yitzhak Tshuva and Nobel Energy’s monopoly” over the gas finds.

MK Dov Hanin (Hadash), on the other hand, was more critical of the ruling, saying it would enable Netanyahu’s government to go on “conducting itself in a problematic manner where this issue is concerned.”

Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom (center) prepares to turn on the connection that will pump natural gas into a Ramat Hovav factory, the first factory in Israel to use natural gas as its source of power (Photo credit: Courtesy Phibro Israel)
Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom (center) prepares to turn on the connection that will pump natural gas into a Ramat Hovav factory, the first factory in Israel to use natural gas as its source of power (Photo credit: Courtesy Phibro Israel)

He said the court, rather than approving the decision in a legalistic or formalistic manner, should have taken into account that over 60 MKs had signed a letter to Netanyahu asking that the matter — which Grunis, the Supreme Court president, himself described as a “serious question” — be debated in the Knesset.

Under the current plan, Israel will receive 540 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Based on the country’s 2012 natural gas consumption of 7 billion cubic meters, the allotment is expected to last for at least 25 years even with significant increases in domestic use.

In March 2013, Israel began pumping natural gas from the Tamar deposit — discovered in 2009 and located some 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Haifa — which holds an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In addition to Tamar, in 2010 an even larger deposit, Leviathan — which boasts an estimated 16-18 trillion cubic feet of gas — was discovered 130 kilometers (81 miles) west of Haifa. It is expected to become operational in 2016, at which time Israel plans to begin exporting natural gas.

The decision on gas exports grew out of conclusions published by the Tzemach Committee headed by former Water and Energy Ministry director general Shaul Tzemach. The committee, formed in late 2011, had called on Israel to keep the first 450 billion cubic meters for domestic use, and allow the export of up to half of any additional amount extracted from the proven reserves.

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