Losing no time, green groups urge new government to stop ‘dangerous’ oil deal

Activists warn of environmental disaster, as tankers unload crude in coral-rich Eilat for transport overland to Ashkelon, on Mediterranean coast, for shipping to Europe

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An oil tanker docked at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's port, close to the coral reef nature reserve of Eilat in southern Israel. (Society for the Protection of Nature)
An oil tanker docked at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company's port, close to the coral reef nature reserve of Eilat in southern Israel. (Society for the Protection of Nature)

With no time to lose, eight of the leading environmental organizations wrote Monday to new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and several of his ministers, calling for the immediate cancellation of a secret and unpopular deal to channel Gulf oil through Israel, on its way to European markets.

The deal was signed in October as a memorandum of understanding between the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-United Arab Emirates venture.

There is already an uptick in the number of massive oil tankers docking in Eilat and unloading oil, to be channeled overland by pipeline for reloading onto tankers in Ashkelon, on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast.

“The agreement has already entered into force, and the Europe Asia Pipeline Company, which is a government company for all intents and purposes, is already operating in accordance with it,” the letter said.

“This is despite the fact that there has never been a cabinet discussion about this dangerous agreement, and certainly no government approval has been given that would allow [the agreement’s] entry into force as required by Section 11 (9A) of the Government Companies Law, 1975.”

The Gulf of Eilat. (Dr. Ilan Malster, Environmental Protection Ministry)

It went on: “Needless to say, this agreement exposes the entire Gulf of Eilat and Aqaba, the shores of Sinai and the corals in them, to enormous danger as a result. of leaks, malfunction or sabotage, which are only a matter of time.”

The agreement is opposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations, and scores of scientists and Eilat residents, given EAPC’s poor environmental record and numerous past leaks — it was responsible, six years ago, for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history — and the importance of Eilat’s coral reefs not only to the city’s tourism and employment sectors, but also globally. Eilat’s corals are proving to be unusually resilient to ocean warming, and could be used to rehabilitate reefs that cannot cope, elsewhere in the world.

Opponents have also drawn attention to the dangers that an oil spill at the EAPC port in Ashkelon could pose for the country’s desalination facilities, Israel’s main source of drinking water, as well as the risks of carcinogenic pollutants being released into the air during the loading and unloading of crude oil.

Then-Environmental Protection minister Gila Gamliel. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

Former environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel tried and failed to get the government to grasp the environmental implications of the deal, which was shared neither with the Environment nor the Energy ministries.

Earlier this month, Gamliel appealed to the National Security Council and the Prime Minister’s Office to cancel the agreement, saying, “The red lights are already switched on and blinking, and the government must act in advance in order to prevent the next catastrophe, and not just wonder in retrospect what could have been done.”

In a letter to Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the National Security Council,  she said, “It cannot be that no meaningful government discussion is held on such a dramatic subject, whose effect is likely to be disastrous. The agreement was signed without us seeing a draft, and without consultation with the Ministry of Environmental Protection before it was signed.”

Gamliel drew attention to the security risks of so many tankers docking off Israel’s shores, pointing to the damage caused when a huge fuel tanker in Ashkelon was hit by a Hamas rocket, during last month’s fighting between Israel and Gaza.

Even the Finance Ministry, within which the EAPC is based, has said it has no details about the agreement.

The NSC responded that it would address diplomatic and security issues, should they arise, and directed Gamliel to the deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Office, Lior Farber.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat during a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport prior to visiting Bahrain to sign a series of bilateral agreements between Jerusalem and Manama, October18, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL via FLASH90)

Prime Minister’s Office Director Tzachi Braverman replied that the PMO does not have the authority to interfere in EAPC’s business activities and suggested Gamliel contact the Finance Ministry, saying that under the Government Companies Law, intervention was only possible after a cabinet decision was made with the approval of the Knesset Finance Committee.

In fact, a closed Zoom discussion involving Ben Shabbat, Braverman, and the Finance, Energy and Environment ministries was planned for April, according to Hebrew media, only to be postponed shortly before it was due to start.

The EAPC maintains that the agreement is “part of the company’s normal course of business, and there is no change in its planned activities. This is a routine activity, as carried out for decades and the agreement is no different from the hundreds of agreements signed by the company. EAPC is equipped with the latest equipment, performs exercises and preparations frequently, is prepared for any activity and meets the most stringent international standards regarding the maintenance of its facilities.”

The Haaretz daily reported Sunday that the National Infrastructure Committee is intending to exempt the EAPC from conducting an environmental impact survey of its installations in Ashkelon on the southern Mediterranean coast.

The report quoted the head of the committee’s environmental team, Dr. Orit Nir, as saying that the company had undertaken multiple tests and surveys on the environmental impact of its work over the years and had submitted a full report on the environmental impact of nine new fuel tanks. Echoing the EAPC’s claim that the deal does not mark any change in its normal activities, she recommended an examination of the marine environmental risk only, the one  issue not to have been reviewed.

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