Overruling Environment Ministry, planners advance contentious oil shale project

Rotem Energy Mineral Partnership given go ahead to order environmental survey for plan to mine shale oil in southern Israel, and heat it with plastic waste to create oil, power

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

Oil shale rock burns on its own once lit with a blow torch. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
Oil shale rock burns on its own once lit with a blow torch. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

A planning committee this week rejected an Environmental Protection Ministry call to throw out a controversial project that seeks to combine oil shale with plastic waste to create oil and generate power.

Members of the southern region planning committee voted 12 to four on Monday to allow the Rotem Energy Mineral Partnership (REM) to commission an environmental impact survey for their plans.

The decision was made despite the committee’s recognition and acceptance of the fact, put forward by the Environmental Protection Ministry and environmental organizations, that oil shale is a significant source of pollution, that its mining and use therefore runs contrary to government policy to move from fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources and that it also conflicts with policy on the treatment of waste.

In a statement Friday, the Ministry said the project should have been rejected outright and that there was no need for an environmental survey, although it would adhere to the committee’s decision.

The REM partnership, controlled by the Australian Casella family-owned Northwood Exploration, plans to build a complex in the Rotem Plain industrial area in southern Israel. The site will include an oil shale mine, a factory where the oil shale will be combined with 200,000 tons of plastic waste each year and heated to produce 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, and a power plant generating some 70 megawatts of electric power for use in the factory and for sale.

Sorting of plastic waste. (BizTV screenshot)

REM already has a conditional license from the Energy Ministry’s petroleum commissioner to look for oil shale, but not to start mining. The exploratory license expires in November 2028.

Oil shale reserves at the mine are estimated at 245 million tons and plans call for the extraction of 1.8 million tons each year.

The process of pyrolisis — the decomposition of materials at very high temperatures — would also require some 380,000 cubic meters of water per year for purposes such as damping down dust removed from the factory.

In accepting the company’s request to proceed with an environmental impact survey, the committee instructed the Environmental Protection Ministry to devise criteria, and asked the Energy Ministry to draw up a position paper on the plans, detailing its policy on oil shale in general and its views on reducing polluting gases that contribute to global warming while transitioning to renewable energy.

The committee also asked the Energy Ministry to comment on the extent to which it would be worthwhile accessing phosphates located beneath the oil shale layers.

‘No new permits for oil shale exploration’

In February, the government announced that it would no longer issue new permits for oil shale exploration.

The Energy Ministry said that it would not be renewing the license of Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd., owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd., to continue oil shale extraction beyond May 2021.

Israel Chemicals’ Rotem Amfert plant. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

But it did say that two other licenses — one granted to REM and the other to Shafir Civil and Marine Engineering’s operation near the Ramon Crater — would be judged according to environmental criteria to be drawn up by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

REM’s board of directors is chaired by Dr. Yaakov Mimran, formerly responsible for oil and gas affairs at the Energy Ministry. Eitan Cabel, a former Labor Party parliamentarian and Knesset Economics Affairs Committee chairman, is a member of REM’s board.

Eitan Cabel, a former Labor Party parliamentarian and Knesset Economics Affairs Committee chairman, is a member of REM’s board. (BizTV screenshot).

Interviewed by BizTV in December, Cabel said that the REM project had great “environmental potential to deal with global warming gases.” He said nobody knew what to do with plastic waste, which was either sent overseas or to landfill (Israel produces a million tons of plastic annually, an estimated 75 percent of which comes from single use plastic), that the mining of the shale oil was “going on anyway,” and that the process would produce an oil that was about as polluting as gas.

Dr. Yonathan Aikhenbaum, campaigns manager at Greenpeace Israel, told The Times of Israel on Thursday that “Eitan has got lost. The immediate problem with plastic is not the plastic that is sent to landfill but the plastic that gets into nature, and this has no connection with the project. REM is proposing to burn plastic in order to convert it into a resource that harms health, the environment and the climate — oil — and that is not good news. The solution to the plastic problem is to stop using it.”

Yonathan Aikhenbaum, campaigns manager at Greenpeace Israel. (Facebook)

He described oil shale as the “dirtiest kind of oil that exists. It pollutes, not only because the final product — oil — pollutes, but because of the destructive production process, which requires a lot of energy, as well as the mining, which releases huge quantities of small particles and contaminating materials into the air.”

The environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din, said in a statement that, “especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, when we are all experiencing the significance of the global environmental crises and the committee is forced to meet online due to the need for social distancing, we would expect committee members to put great emphasis on the environment and public health, to insist on the public’s welfare and to conduct a deep discussion that takes into account climate issues and air pollution.”

The organization agreed with the company on the need to generate jobs in the Negev but said this should be done by expanding sustainable energy projects, not at the expense of public health.

The Negev Energy thermo-solar plant at Ashalim in the Negev. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

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