Noble Energy faces possible further sanctions for malfunctions at gas rig

Dozens of failures and alarms this year lead Environment Ministry to weigh new penalties for operator of the Leviathan natural gas platform over permit violations

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

The Noble Energy control room on the Leviathan platform on December 31, 2019. (Noble Energy)
The Noble Energy control room on the Leviathan platform on December 31, 2019. (Noble Energy)

Three weeks after the Environmental Protection Ministry announced that it was opening enforcement proceedings against the operator of the Leviathan natural gas platform for violating the terms of its emissions permit, a ministry official revealed that another two such cases against the company are being considered.

Shuli Nezer, senior deputy director general in the Environment Ministry’s Industries Division, told a Knesset Committee meeting that this could mean fines of “millions.”

Nezer said that the ministry was “very, very worried” about the number of problems that have bedeviled the rig, operated in the Mediterranean off the Israeli shore by Texas-based Noble Energy, since the beginning of commercial operation on January 12. Between that date and May 24, there were 35 malfunctions — most of them requiring gas to burned off via the flare — with additional instances since then, the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee heard Tuesday.

Last month, the ministry announced the opening of enforcement proceedings against Noble Energy because the company had failed to connect a system that constantly monitors pollutant emissions from the flare stacks to a national database. The connection, since implemented, enables the ministry to keep track of pollutant released continuously and in real time. The data includes constant video footage.

“Noble decided to delay the connection of the camera and that affected our ability to get information,”  Nezer said. “When we can’t see what’s happening, we can’t give information to the public.”

Shuli Nezer, senior deputy director general in the Environment Ministry’s Industries Division, addresses a Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting on June 16, 2020. (Knesset TV screenshot)

Ministry Director General Udi Adiri said that the ministry was far from satisfied with Leviathan’s malfunctions but was not considering halting gas production unless the investigation concluded that it was necessary. He said he understood that local residents “want to sleep in peace and not be woken by flares.”

Since Leviathan started production, the ministry had intervened twice, he went on.

On the first occasion, there were problems with a part in the pipes from the well to the rig which balances pressure. Noble Energy discovered blockages which it reported to the ministry. It hired a company to investigate, while the ministry also consulted with external experts. The ministry ordered Noble Energy to reduce production until the problem was solved.

Two weeks ago, after several more malfunctions, the ministry ordered the company to temporarily stop working with a turbo expander, a piece of equipment that increases gas production.

Adiri insisted that some of the breakdowns were a function of the severe safety standards on deck. It was enough for one sensor to pick up heat to close the entire system down, he said.

Of all the breakdowns since January, 11 were connected to temperature changes or vibrations, eight to technical installation mistakes, five to computer failures or false alarms and one to human error.

Screen capture from a video of natural gas being burned off from the Leviathan natural gas processing platform, May 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Walla)

The repeated use of the Leviathan rig’s flare to burn off gas in cases of emergency has alarmed local residents, infuriated the anti-Leviathan nonprofit organization Home Guardians, and pushed the Sharon-Carmel Towns Association for the Protection of the Environment to press for explanations which, according to its chairman Asif Izak, have not been forthcoming. The association represents 18 local councils and some 800,000 residents.

“There’s a serious problem,” Izak told the committee. “I’m told there have been investigations but we haven’t been given answers. A population of nearly a million people needs to know that the breakdowns have been dealt with and that they won’t be repeated.”

Yoni Sappir, head of the Home Guardians organization. (Facebook)

Yoni Sappir, who heads Homeland Guardians, initially set up to fight the location of the rig close to the Israeli shore, charged that ozone levels had worsened as a result of Leviathan. “They’re throwing sand in our eyes,” he charged. “We have received hundreds of reports from residents about coughing, and the feeling of burning throats after the flares.”

But at least at sea, no worsening conditions had been identified, the ninistry’s National Marine Protection division director Rani Amir reported. Noble Energy, he said, was obligated to carry out extensive monitoring of water quality, the seabed, the health of living creatures and more.

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