Ministries feud over future of natural gas in climate change tug-of-war

Environmental Protection and Energy ministries trying to reach pre-election deal on renewable targets and whether Israel can move to almost total reliance on sun by 2050

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

Israel's offshore Leviathan gas field is seen from on board the Israeli Navy ship Lahav on September 29, 2020. (AP /Ariel Schalit)
Israel's offshore Leviathan gas field is seen from on board the Israeli Navy ship Lahav on September 29, 2020. (AP /Ariel Schalit)

Just hours after Wednesday’s inauguration, US President Joe Biden signed executive orders rejoining the 2015 Paris Climate Accords and revoking the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit.

The orders, and the timing, were designed to send a powerful message to the international community: The US is taking climate change seriously, and fossil fuel usage is on borrowed time.

Biden has made clear that climate change is among the key crises facing his administration, along with COVID-19, racism and the economy.

Characteristically, though, there was no mention of global warming in the welcome messages Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sent to Biden. There, the emphasis was on diplomatic issues such as Iran.

Israel, too, is a signatory to the Paris Accords, and has committed to generating 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. But in recent weeks, a fierce battle has shaped up between the Energy and Environmental Protection ministries over raising that target and setting an even-higher goal for 2050.

Solar panels in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

By 2050, experts believe, most of Israel’s energy will be supplied by electricity, from cars to stovetops. With plentiful natural gas under the sea and limited land for harnessing solar power, the Energy Ministry is resisting efforts for it to commit to almost totally phasing out fossil fuels for producing that electricity. But without moving in that direction, Israel will likely find it impossible to significantly cut its carbon footprint.

A cut above

In December, a 16-page report — the result of two years of work by some 3,000 policy-makers, officials, academics, and others — sketched out how Israel could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent by 2050.

The project, guided by the OECD and the Israel Democracy Institute, saw the National Planning and Building Council a well as the ministries of Environmental Protection, Energy, Transportation, Economy and Industry, and Finance, probe the issues and hammer out targets, ministry by ministry.

“A Thriving Economy in a Sustainable Environment” was presented at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society on December 16.

In the document, the Energy Ministry committed to cutting emissions from the energy sector by 80% and from the production of electricity by 75-85% by 2050 compared with 2015 (contingent on cuts in other sectors, not under its control, such as transportation and planning).

The ministry did not include a target for how much energy would be produced from renewable resources for 2050, but it had already secured government support in October for its goal of supplying 30% of energy from renewables by 2030 — an increase on its previous target for that date of 17%.

The Paris accord commits 195 countries and other signatories to come up with a goal to reduce carbon pollution and monitor and report their fossil fuel emissions, with the goal of capping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6˚F), and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7˚F), compared to pre-industrial levels.

A mountain gazelle looks down at a highway in Israel. (Amir Balaban, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.)

As part of the accord, by the end of 2020 the signatories were to have submitted to the UN goals for carbon emission cuts (as opposed to targets for renewable energy) by 2030 as well as new targets for 2050. (Just 44 countries, plus the EU’s 27 member states, managed to meet the deadline).

The “Thriving Economy” document was the blueprint for what would be sent to the UN, but on December 30, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel presented a new document to the cabinet, attempting to lock the Energy Ministry into renewable energy targets it had not previously agreed to.

Letters of fury

The six-page summary of targets, entitled “Moving to a Low Carbon Economy — Proposal for a Decision,” envisages producing at least 40% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 – ten percent more than the government approved in October — and 95% by 2050 (the latter on the condition that technology will allow for seven consecutive days of renewable energy storage). Estimates say that this would cut global warming emissions from 57 to 14 million tons annually.

Furthermore it calls for climate-warming emissions to be cut across the board by 75% to 85% by 2050.

The proposal, sent to cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman, sparked a flurry of letters between the ministries and others angered by Gamliel’s move, as well as mudslinging between her and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, both of whom belong to the Likud party.

David Yahalomi (Courtesy the Environmental Protection Ministry)

A day after the proposal went to Braverman, Environmental Protection Ministry Director General David Yahalomi received a barbed letter from Adi Hachmon, deputy director of Budgets (infrastructure), at the Finance Ministry, accusing the ministry of having failed to provide supporting materials and costs for its more ambitious goals, not to mention assessments of the goals’ impact on the economy and Israel’s GDP.

According to a document presented at the Eli Hurvitz conference by Gil Proaktor, director of Energy and Climate Change at the Environmental Protection Ministry, reducing greenhouse gas emission across the board by 27% by 2030 and 82% by 2050 would cost the economy just 0.62% of GDP, and that is without calculating the economic benefits.

Several days later, Gamliel appealed directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring the document’s proposals for urgent government discussion. She recalled his pledge last month at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 that Israel was “totally committed to a successful transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050.”

Infuriated, Steinitz wrote to Netanyahu the following day to complain about Gamliel’s “negligent, unprofessional and unbelievable” behavior.

Other letters followed — one from the Manufacturers’ Association, complaining that the proposals would hurt business, and another from the Agriculture Ministry, saying officials faced enough of a challenge finding agricultural buildings on which to install solar panels to meet the 30% renewables target, without having the goalposts moved mid-game.

Intensive meetings between ministry officials and outside experts on hashing out an agreement are being held in what is understood to be a constructive, professional atmosphere.

Not waiting on the government to change

On Monday, Gamliel became the first Israeli minister to congratulate the new Biden-Harris administration, with a pledge to join them in reaching ambitious carbon-cutting goals.

Just as Biden hit the ground running on climate change, the Environmental Protection Ministry hopes to do the same; hence its attempt to extract a clear renewable energy target from the Energy Ministry.

The ministry is hoping to get moving on more detailed implementation plans that can be presented to the next government as soon as it starts work, and the country’s environmental commitments can be enshrined into a future Climate Law.

Given that the current government is an interim one, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will have to approve any government decision on new climate targets, but he is not expected to object.

The Energy Ministry, which is still planning scores of projects in natural gas and even backing continued exploration for oil, prefers to hedge its bets and not lock itself into specific renewable energy goals.

A general view of the Eshkol power station, the first in Israel to produce electricity from natural gas, in the coastal city of Ashdod (Photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
An undated view of the Eshkol power station, the first in Israel to produce electricity from natural gas, in the coastal city of Ashdod (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Rather than committing to “zero carbon” — which means ending fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide in favor of renewables — it prefers a “net zero approach,” which gives it the freedom to continue to burn fuels while compensating by using technologies, still in their infancy, such as carbon capture and storage.

But beyond the figures, the Environment Ministry wants a clear 2050 solar energy target that signals to the market that fossil fuels are on their way out, that industry should adapt or die, and that the government and planning bodies should direct investment away from laying more gas pipes and establishing new gas power stations that will be around for decades, and instead extend and adapt the power grid for a new, much more decentralized system of electricity, with multiple producers, while removing regulatory barriers and introducing incentives to get solar panels put up wherever possible.

Power-generating solar panels on the rooftop of a house in central Israel. (Chen Leopold / Flash 90

As one source in the ministry told The Times of Israel, “The world is moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. We can’t be members of the OECD and behave like a developing country.”

The likely compromise between the two ministries will be to inform the UN that Israel commits to reducing emissions by 30 % by 2030 and by 85% by 2050, with the Energy Ministry setting up a committee to determine a target for solar energy by 2050 in time for the UN’s Glasgow climate change conference in November.

The answer is not blowing in the wind

As minister, Steinitz has led an effort to wean the country off of coal, which will become history in 2026. But he has also defended the continued use of natural gas, which he sees as a clean fossil fuel and an important source of national income.

Speaking at an IDI conference on Wednesday, he attacked Gamliel for missing targets to reduce emissions from landfills and waste and vaunted his own successes.

“When I see a certain minister (Gamliel) moralizing at me that that we’re not concerned about the Paris goals and global warming, we are the only ones who don’t just talk but look at what promises we can fulfill and then go ahead and fulfill them,” he told the conference, adding, “It’s more important to meet targets than to announce them.”

In actuality, his own ministry has already missed its 10% renewable energy target for 2020 (which was blamed on COVID-19). By the end of last year only 5.7% of Israel’s energy was coming from solar.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset Interior and Environmental Protection Committee, July 22, 2020. (Adina Velman, Knesset spokesperson)

Last year, 3,961 MW of electricity were being produced from solar energy, according to ministry figures. To reach the 2030 goal, that will have to quadruple, to 15,773 MW.

Steinitz complained that it was unfair to compare Israel with other nations that have other sources of sustainable power, such as wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. With just a negligible amount of wind (picked up by a handful of turbines in the north) and no major rivers, Israel’s move to renewable energy is almost totally dependent on the sun.

Power generating wind turbines in the Golan Heights next to moshav Alonei Habashan in 2008 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Power-generating wind turbines in the Golan Heights in northern Israel, next to Moshav Alonei Habashan, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The ministry estimates that it will need at least 100,000 dunams (24,700 acres) of surface area for solar panels just to reach that target. But the National Planning and Building Council recently ruled that no more than 20,000 dunams (just under 5,000 acres) of open land can be used for ground-based solar installations. Where will the rest be installed?

“I’m not saying not to do it,” Steinitz said of the solar fields, noting that gas-fired power stations took up less room. “But we’re not Jordan or Saudi Arabia, which have endless reserves of land.”

Energy Ministry Director General Udi Adiri (Screen capture: YouTube)

Furthermore, he continued, unlike other countries, Israel cannot rely on its neighbors for energy backup (although the Abraham Accords might change this). Until technology provides for sufficient storage to guarantee a constant power flow — and today it is not possible to store even a week’s worth of solar power — Israel must continue to ensure that natural gas can step in when the sun goes down, Steinitz said.

Energy Ministry Director-General Udi Adiri said Wednesday that to fix a target today for 2050 that relies only upon solar energy would be “a fatal mistake.” No country, he asserted, has pledged even 50% solar energy by 2050.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow

The Environmental Protection Ministry insists that it is possible to reach 95% renewable energy by 2050, both according to its own research and to scenarios developed by the Energy Ministry itself during the two-year visioning process.

While most existing solar installations are on the ground, an Environmental Protection Ministry study found that around 30 types of already built-upon locations could be converted for dual-use through the addition of solar panels, from agricultural and industrial buildings, military bases and parking lots to traffic intersections, fish ponds and cemeteries.

In total, the study found, 18 gigawatt of energy – enough to provide 46% of Israel’s electricity needs today — could be produced if solar installations were erected on dual-use plots.

Solar panels floating on a reservoir on the Golan Heights, near Kibbutz Shamir, in northern Israel. (Courtesy, Golan Solar)

By 2030, 24 GW could be provided, equivalent to 43% of expected demand (given population and city growth), and by 2050, it would reach anything from 43 to 81 GW, supplying 40% to 83% of the nation’s electricity needs.

This is all in addition to the 10% percent solar energy which Israel should hit this year, and is conservative in predicting improvements in solar panel efficiency and possibilities in future of fixing them to the sides of buildings as well as roofs.

Existing methods of solar energy storage will suffice for another 15 years, the ministry has claimed, and longer period storage will only be needed once solar energy is providing around 80% of the country’s electricity.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed