In win for environment, Israel won’t issue new oil shale exploration permits

Energy Ministry says it will not renew ICL Rotem Amfert license and will require 2 other oil shale projects to comply with environmental criteria

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

Rotem Amfert factories in the Negev. (Screenshot)
Rotem Amfert factories in the Negev. (Screenshot)

The government on Tuesday announced that it would no longer issue new permits for oil shale exploration, in a move welcomed by environmental organizations and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The decision, made at a meeting earlier this week attended by the ministers of energy and environmental protection, applies both to drilling and open cast mining.

According to a statement issued by both ministries, the decision came in light of both ministers’ commitment to clean energy and the result of weighing the benefits to the energy sector against the environmental costs.

The Energy Ministry also announced that it would not be renewing the license of Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd., owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd., to continue oil shale extraction beyond May 2021.

Israel Chemicals’ Rotem Amfert plant. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

It was agreed that two other licenses granted to companies in southern Israel — Rotem Energy Mineral (REM) on the Rotem Plain and Shafir Civil and Marine Engineering’s operation near the large Ramon Crater — would be judged according to environmental criteria to be drawn up by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The chairman of REM’s board of directors is Dr. Yaakov Mimran, formerly responsible for oil and gas affairs at the Energy Ministry. He told January’s Environment2050 conference that REM planned to mine for oil shale and to combine it with plastic waste to create electricity and around 1.5 million barrels of oil annually.

Eitan Cabel, a former Labor Party parliamentarian and Knesset Economics Affairs Committee chairman, is a member of REM’s board.

Former Labor MK Eitan Cabel delivers a speech at the Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The ministries’ announcement relates only to exploration for oil shale, not for terrestrial oil.

The Society for the Protection of Nature, which has campaigned to have oil shale stopped, welcomed the decision, saying the industry caused “serious environmental harm, which has no place in Israel.” The next step, said a statement, was to stop the granting of any licenses.

Amit Bracha, director-general of the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, said the fear was that the two other existing shale oil companies would be given a green light, “despite the fact that these are destructive to the environment.”

As long as the remaining oil shale projects were not specifically prohibited, Israel was contributing to the global warming crisis, he added.

Yonathan Aikhenbaum, campaigns manager at Greenpeace Israel, said that oil shale was the “dirtiest kind of oil that exists. It pollutes, not only because the final product — oil — pollutes, but because of the destructive production process, which requires a lot of energy, as well as the mining, which releases huge quantities of small particles and contaminating materials into the air.”

Said Aikhenbaum, “We can’t stop at good intentions. We demand from the Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to announce the cancellation of [all] existing projects…and to take an even braver and more important decision: to freeze all gas and oil exploration in Israel, at sea as well as on land. Israel is a solar power, not an oil and gas power.”

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