MKs fume over Treasury chief’s call to review gov’t policy opposing Eilat oil deal

8 lawmakers accuse Finance Ministry director of ignoring High Court ruling that Environmental Protection Ministry has right to prevent further risk in coral-rich Gulf of Eilat

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Protesting against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)
Protesting against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)

A group of lawmakers reacted furiously on Sunday to the Finance Ministry director-general’s call to review the Environmental Protection Ministry’s right to set a “zero additional risk” policy in the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Eilat, which is blocking a controversial oil deal.

In December, three environmental organizations withdrew a petition to the High Court against the oil agreement after the government declared there would not be interference with with the Environmental Protection Ministry’s police regarding the addition of risk.

On February 10, however, Finance Ministry director Ram Belinkov, wrote a letter to Yair Pines, his counterpart at the Prime Minister’s Office, calling for a full government review and discussion of the policy.

At issue is a controversial oil deal signed between the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and an Israeli-Emirati business consortium called MED-RED Land Bridge.

A memorandum of understanding, inked in 2020, provided for the EAPC to receive Gulf oil at its Eilat oil port on the Red Sea in southern Israel and transport it via overland pipes to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea, where it would be reloaded onto tankers bound for Europe.

Following the submission of what it regarded as two unsatisfactory environmental risk surveys, the Environmental Protection Ministry informed the EAPC in November that it would not grant the permits necessary to implement the full deal, all but scuttling the lucrative 10-year contract.

In September, it had already limited the number of Gulf tankers that could dock annually in Eilat to a maximum of six, though the EAPC was seeking a green light for 30. The ministry also restricted the amount of oil that could be brought in yearly to 2 million tons.

Ram Belinkov, the director-general of the Ministry of Finance attends a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, August 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Appearing to side with the EAPC and its claim to the High Court that the environmental risks of the deal would be negligible, Belinkov described the  Environmental Protection Ministry’s policy as “not a reasonable position to take in an enlightened country.”

Repeating his previously stated view that the government should not intervene in the MED-RED Land Bridge agreement, he said that the environmental policy affected “broad economic activity, part of which is even essential for the economy and the security of the state.”

Faithful Warrior, an oil tanker filling up at the EAPC terminal in Eilat, in southern Israel, from January 8 to 9. (Mori Hen, of the not-for-profit Desert and Sea Environment, Eilat)

“As is known, any essential infrastructure can have environmental implications. A zero-risk policy will not allow the creation of infrastructure that is essential to Israel and the carrying out of proper business, with all the negative consequences of halting development in the State of Israel,” Belinkov said.

He added that there was no way of knowing whether the Environmental Protection ministry would take similarly steps elsewhere in the country on environmental risk grounds.

The ministry, he charged, “has decided, on its own accord, and without any discussion about the implications with the relevant authorities, on a policy of zero risk concerning all bodies operating in the Gulf of Eilat.”

In their response Sunday, the eight Knesset members accused Belinkov of ignoring the High Court’s ruling on non-intervention in the Environmental Protection Ministry’s risk policy for the Gulf.

They suggested that instead of conducting a review of the ministry’s policy, the government should focus on the EAPC’s pollution record and on how to stop repeated environmental violations.

Oil seeps between desert bushes in the Evrona Nature Reserve, December 7, 2014. (Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

The EAPC, which has said the likelihood of leakage in a pipe carrying fuel to a ship was so low it would only occur once every 1,111 years, has had a poor record on pollution.

It was responsible for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history in 2014 when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.

Last week, a Beersheba court convicted it and several former senior employees, including the director-general, of polluting the Zin stream in southern Israel on two separate occasions in 2011.

This picture taken on February 10, 2021 shows a view of marine life at a coral reef in the Red Sea waters off the coast of Israel’s southern port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Eilat is home to coral reefs of world importance that appear to be more resilient to ocean warming than reefs in other parts of the world, such as Australia. The reefs and the clear waters of the Red Sea underpin Eilat’s tourism industry.

The oil deal is opposed by the former and current environmental protection ministers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the local coastal authorities, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations, scores of scientists, Eilat residents, and citizens who, until the High Court decision, mounted weekly demonstrations throughout the country.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which is set Monday to carry out an exercise in the sea off Eilat to prepare for a future oil pollution event, said in response to Belinkov’s letter that it had nothing new to add.

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