TOI investigatesLicenses issued before policy shift banning land prospecting

In Arava desert, some seek to stymie a last-gasp search for oil under their feet

Two firms set to begin exploring for fossil fuels in southern Israel, but residents fear seismic surveys could scar landscape and worse could be in offing should drilling progress

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative photograph of drilling oil on land. (bashta, iStock at Getty Images)
Illustrative photograph of drilling oil on land. (bashta, iStock at Getty Images)

Residents of the picturesque Arava desert near Eilat on the southern tip of Israel are worried that a plan to explore for terrestrial oil in the region could scar the landscape, cause environmental damage, and disrupt the tourism on which much of the local economy depends.

A license to search for oil in a 275-square-kilometer (106,000-square-mile) tract dubbed Aya was awarded in 2019 to Arbel Oil and Gas Exploration and Shafir Engineering and Industry.

The search is expected to be among the last to take place on Israeli soil, after Energy Minister Karine Elharrar announced a policy shift in August banning new terrestrial oil exploration licenses.

The Aya license is set to expire in February, and the companies have yet to begin drilling, raising hopes among critics that the search, expected to begin this month and take half a year, will be quashed before it can even get under the ground.

“In the current situation in which there has been such a long delay, and nothing has been discovered, I believe that the ministry has the authority to cancel it now, and certainly to refuse any application to extend it beyond February 2022,” said Asaf Ben Levy, legal adviser to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

According to him, Israel’s Petroleum Law makes it more difficult to stop projects the further along they are.

Under the law, the Energy Ministry’s petroleum commissioner can grant wildcatters an extension of up to seven years. That includes cases in which no discoveries have been made yet, if “a good reason” is found to issue an extension.

The Aya license area. (Energy Ministry)

The Energy Ministry said in a statement, “The license was granted in 2019, before the decision was made not to allow more oil drilling on land. The ministry does not grant new exploration licenses on land, but is legally obligated to maintain existing licenses.”

Despite Elharrar’s new policy, however, the ministry left the door open to extending the license. “The Petroleum Commissioner will decide on the extension or non-extension of the concession towards the month of February, inter alia, according to implementation of the approved work plan,” a spokesperson said.

A timetable for the Aya license gave the companies a year to begin seismic surveys, though they only plan on starting in mid-October, less than six months before the three-year lease expires.

The Geophysical Institute of Israel, which will carry out the surveys on the developers’ behalf, will focus its efforts on an area of roughly 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) between Yotvata and Timna just north of Eilat, regarded as the most promising oil play on the basis of a review of earlier surveys carried out in the 1990s.

The surveys, which will only start once specialist equipment from overseas can be obtained, produce detailed images of the rocks below the earth’s surface, helping developers to assess if there is oil or gas, and if so, how much and where. They will also survey the area along the border with Jordan down almost to Eilat. The whole process of surveying and interpretation of the data is expected to take approximately six months.

According to Dr. Uri Frieslander of the Geophysical Institute, the seismic surveys’ delay was caused by the coronavirus pandemic plus the time it took the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to greenlight surveys on land under its jurisdiction.

(There is still one other terrestrial oil exploration license, also valid until February, for Ahinoam, in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, where Shafir Engineering and Industry is also planning seismic surveys.)

Many Arava residents are wary of their corner of the country turning into a proving ground or conduit for an industry they see going the way of the fossils they burn for energy, as much of the rest of the world turns to renewable sources of energy in the face of runaway global warming.

Ecologists say a 2014 oil spill — the nation’s worst ever — continues to wrack delicate ecosystems in other parts of the Arava, and there is widespread opposition to a secretive deal signed by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company and an Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium last October that would ratchet up the amount of oil sent through the same pipeline that leaked in 2014, bringing large amounts of Gulf crude to Eilat on the Red Sea and channeling it overland to Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean, from where it will shipped to markets in southern Europe.

Protesting against the deal between the Europe Asia Pipeline Company and an Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium to use Israel as a land bridge for Gulf crude exports to Europe, September 25, 2021. (Israel Climate and Ecology Emergency Headquarters)

Earlier this month, protesters from Eilat and the Arava demonstrated against the deal together with other Israelis who took to the streets and highway overpasses all over the country and even demonstrated in front of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s home.

Some fear that seismic surveys will scar the landscape and drilling will destabilize the geologically active region, and point out the cruel irony of the fact that the area itself is already set to be 100 percent reliant on solar energy around the clock, making it a vanguard of the renewable revolution.

Geological surveys have for decades forecast the possibility of the existence of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil beneath Israel, but prospectors have never managed to squeeze more than a few million barrels out of the soil, a drop in the bucket of global production. Many see little point in continuing the search, especially as the world transitions to renewable energy, and fear what will happen if oil is discovered beneath their feet.

“Don’t worry, we’re told, the chances of finding oil are very low. But the chances exist sufficiently to carry out the surveys,” said Tal Holzman, who lives on Kibbutz Be’er Ora. “Don’t worry, they say, before any drilling there will be an environmental examination. But this will be financed by the developers. And that’s before we’ve talked about the Petroleum Law. On the basis of our initial reading of it, we fear that we have here an unstoppable train speeding toward oil drilling. From the moment that oil is discovered, there will be no turning back.”

Employees of the Trans-Israel Pipeline clean up the large deposits of crude oil that gushed out of a breached pipeline near the southern Israeli village of Be’er Ora, north of Eilat, Dec. 5, 2014. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Holzman raised her concerns at a recent meeting organized by Sababa, a local environment group, where scores of concerned locals met online with the geologist behind the oil prospecting project to express their fears and seek answers, saying they had only heard about the project for the first time last month.

Geologist Yossi Langotsky, who is advising the firms, assessed that there was a 10-20% chance of finding oil in the Aya field, an area he has been eyeing for years.

He suggested that residents drive to three sites near Ashkelon where 84 drills had been carried out since 1955 and 20,000 barrels of oil extracted, without any damage.

Prof. Shmulik Marco, an earthquake expert at Tel Aviv University, noted that drilling could touch off worrisome seismic activity.

“In all the places where substantial pumping has taken place, earthquakes happened. When they happen in Texas or Oklahoma, they are weak, in the region of 3.6 or 4 [on the Richter scale]. But we are not there. We are located at the meeting place of tectonic plates. And nobody knows [what the effect of drilling here will be]. Research into this is at a very early stage,” said Marco, who lived in Eilat for 15 years.

An American flag flies near an oil rig on July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

While not an expert on oil exploration, he said he was familiar with all the geological research and seismological studies carried out in the area.

Saying that he saw no geological logic for thinking that there was oil in the rocks,  declared that believing the oil industry doesn’t cause damage was “wishful thinking.” Mishaps related to oil production, storage and transport would always would happen, he said, and unlike some other areas in Israel where oil had been found, Eilat and the surrounding region of Hevel Eilot depended on their beautiful landscapes for tourism.

Dorit Davidovich-Banet, director of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, pointed out that the region was already running 150% on solar energy during the day and would be able to rely on the sun around the clock from 2025. The area, called Hevel Eilot, was focused on renewable energy, not fossil fuels, she said.

“What was right for the last 30 years is no longer right for the present and future,” she charged.

Illustrative: An aerial view of the solar field at Kibbutz Ketura. (Courtesy)

Langotsky, who was behind Israel’s discovery of the offshore Tamar gas field — both Tamar and Aya are named for his granddaughters — said it was critical for Israel to maintain a store of hydrocarbons for the next 50 years to guarantee energy security, even if renewables were up and coming.

While he was in favor of alternative sources of energy, they would take “a long time” to develop, he claimed, saying that any new discoveries of gas or oil would only strengthen Israel’s reserves.

Geologist Yossi Langotsky. (Screenshot)

“I don’t intend to change the world. I do the best in my field,” he said when asked to address scientific evidence that fuel combustion was causing global warming.

A spokeswoman for Shafir Engineering and Industry said in a statement: “The Aya license, which was granted to Shafir and Gulliver (owned by Arbel) on behalf of the state at the end of a lengthy tender process, allows the above companies to conduct a three-dimensional and non-invasive seismic survey, in order to test the feasibility of gas reserves in the area. The survey was approved by the Ministry of Energy and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and will be carried out by the Geophysical Institute.”

A spokesperson for Arbel could not be reached for comment.

Besides Aya, there is one other terrestrial oil exploration license, also valid until February, for Ahinoam, in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, where Shafir Engineering and Industry is also planning seismic surveys.

Licenses to produce oil are still held by Givot Olam Oil Exploration Ltd in Rosh  Ha’ayin in central Israel (until 2032), and by Lapidoth-Heletz in the Heletz field close to the Gaza Strip (until 2047). Drilling began in Heletz in 1960.

Two companies also hold licenses connected to oil shale, or kerogen, part of a kind of rock that breaks down and releases hydrocarbons when heated. One is Rotem Energy Mineral Partnership (REM), which is planning to combine oil shale with plastic waste to create oil and generate power. Despite attempts by the Environmental Protection Ministry and green groups to have this project scrapped, a southern district planning committee approved the next stage of planning earlier this year.

Shafir Engineering and Industry owns the second oil shale permit for a site called Oron in the Negev Desert. It is currently awaiting petroleum commissioner approval to start pushing its plans through the southern district planning committee as well.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in a statement that it opposed any initiative to search for and produce oil on land and sea given its polluting effect and the risks it posed to ecosystems and human health. The government has already decided to transition to a low-carbon economy, the statement went on, and exploration and production of oil was contrary to this commitment.

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