Knesset committee peels away secrecy rules governing state oil company

Committee head says changes strike ‘correct balance’ between state security and public’s right to know; green groups welcome reform, vow to continue fighting for total transparency

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

This aerial photograph, taken on February 10, 2021, shows the oil storage containers of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near Israel's Red Sea port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
This aerial photograph, taken on February 10, 2021, shows the oil storage containers of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near Israel's Red Sea port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

In a first, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday agreed to water down the secrecy conditions covering activities of the the controversial state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company.

Moreover, it agreed to extend the gag rules for one year only, despite the Finance Ministry’s request for five years.

Local authorities and environmental groups claim that the secrecy — apparently linked to a historical connection between the company and Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution — prevents them from supervising and monitoring polluting activities and protecting the environment.

The committee, chaired by Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, approved allowing one inspector each from a group of relevant local authorities, as well as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, to view confidential information for the purposes of environmental supervision. The employees will undergo “security adaptation” ahead of the review.

The authorities govern areas in and around Eilat and Ashkelon in southern Israel where the EAPC maintains its oil ports.

The company maintains pipelines linking Eilat, on the Red Sea coast, to Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean shores, which provide a land bridge for the transportation of crude oil between Europe, the Gulf and the Far East.

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)

Oil leaks have caused some of Israel’s worst environmental disasters over the years, in places such as the Evrona Nature Reserve near Eilat.

Environmental campaigners have long warned of the dangers an oil spill could cause to Eilat’s unusually climate-resilient coral reefs. These are not only important as the world continues to warm, but underpin much of the tourism industries in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Information that will no longer be confidential under Wednesday’s ruling will relate to the performance of periodic tests of equipment according to the manufacturer’s instructions and documents about training in toxic materials management, hazardous waste permits, emergency preparedness and immediate response. The company will also be obliged to keep and make available to the public a diary of environmental events.

Edelstein told the committee that the wording of the new ruling struck the “correct balance” between protecting state security and honoring the public’s right to know.

Yuli Edelstein attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense committee in the Knesset on February 26, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

The company will still be able to keep information about its finances, shareholders, management and executive salaries in the dark.

Environmental groups welcomed the changes and praised Edelstein, committee members and the committee’s legal adviser, Miri Frenkel-Shor, for standing firm against pressures from the EAPC and the Finance Ministry.

Zalul, an organization that campaigns for the environmental protection of the seas, said the changes would allow for better protection of the environment and of the tens of thousands of people living along the length of the pipelines and close to the oil storage areas.

A protest against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. The sign reads, ‘Stop the oil agreement now.’ (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)

But it vowed to continue pressing for the total removal of the EAPC’s secrecy cover and for publication of information on the amount of oil the company transports.

A statement said, “In the name of proper governance, and in order to be able to judge the benefits against the risks, we will continue to demand that the public gets access to information about the total income generated by the transportation of oil and the value of the dividends paid to the state.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said it, too, would continue to work until the EAPC became “a government company with real transparency and proper supervision.”

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