Afek Oil and Gas, which is searching for oil on the Golan Heights, will be allowed to continue its experimental drilling for an additional two years, the Northern Regional Planning and Building Committee decided on Monday.
The original plan allowed Afek to search for oil in the Golan for a period of one year. Afek won the right to drill 10 experimental wells for that year on a 396-kilometer-square area of the Golan after a contentious legal battle that reached the High Court of Justice. The company began drilling on December 30, 2014.
Afek, a subsidiary of the American company Genie Energy, claimed that the High Court of Justice ruling did not specify whether the clause meant one year per well or one year for all ten wells. It takes approximately 3-4 months to drill each experimental well. The company appealed to the Northern Regional Planning and Building Committee for additional two years to carry out the search for oil, due to the ambiguity of the language.
On Monday, the Planning and Building Committee approved Afek’s request for two more years, to the ire of environmental groups. Afek will still need final approval from the committee in the coming weeks, but the initial authorization will likely stand.
“Again we’re seeing how Afek is enjoying privileges with questionable legitimacy,” said Orly Ariav, a lawyer with environmental group Adam Teva V’Din. “We will not stand for the the environment and residents’ health to be abandoned by the Regional Committee and we will appeal to the High Court of Justice.”
Afek announced on October 7 that it had discovered “significant amounts” of oil during the exploratory stage. The company has so far drilled three exploratory wells, and will begin drilling at a fourth site in the coming weeks, according to an Afek spokeswoman.
The oil is located about 1,000 meters below the surface. “We’re talking about a layer 350 meters thick,” Yuval Bartov, Afek’s chief geologist, told Channel 2 in October.
The drilling process removes a sample core of the stone, which is then tested in the field. This accomplishes two purposes: first, to understand if the oil can be safely extracted in a way that is commercially viable. Some oil finds require such a high level of production that it becomes too expensive or too hazardous to the environment to produce commercially.
The second purpose of the test is to share the results with the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources, so the company can then receive government approval for commercial production.
Afek currently has permission to conduct explorations on the Golan, but not to produce oil commercially. The comapny will have to go through an additional approval process with the Northern Regional Planning and Building Commission before it can begin production.
Environmental activists and some Golan residents are opposed to oil exploration and production as they believe it will destroy the environment and endanger the water tables that lead to the Sea of Galilee.
Afek counters that the oil discoveries could make Israel completely energy independent and provide enough to fulfill the Israeli market’s 270,000-barrel-per-day consumption for a very long time.
Since Israel’s founding, companies searching for oil across Israel have drilled 530 exploratory wells, and none of them has turned up commercially viable oil.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.