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Fearing for corals, protesters denounce plans to turn Eilat into oil and gas hub

Scores of demonstrators warn UAE-Israel oil pipeline deal will endanger Red Sea city’s unique coral reefs, as well as pollute the air and water in popular resort town

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

A protest against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. The sign reads, 'Stop the oil agreement now.' (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)
A protest against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. The sign reads, 'Stop the oil agreement now.' (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)

Scores of demonstrators took to the streets and to the sea in Eilat in southern Israel on Wednesday to protest plans to turn the city into an oil and gas import and export hub, saying it could harm nature and endanger tourism and public health.

Eilat, a popular tourist destination on the country’s southern tip, is also home to world-renowned coral reefs. Environmental and civil society groups have joined over 200 scientists to campaign against the fossil fuel plans for fear that an oil leak or other disaster could badly damage the reefs, which have avoided the bleaching and die-offs that have decimated almost all other reefs around the world.

Around 200 people, including families and youth groups, gathered at the sea front to demonstrate against an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to funnel oil to Europe. There are also fears that talk of extending a gas pipe down to Eilat indicates exports are in mind.

Some protesters clambered onto an existing terminal jutting into the sea and unfurled a giant poster reading “Stop the oil deal now.”

Corals in the Gulf of Eilat. (Dr. Ilan Malster, Environmental Protection Ministry)

Opponents fear that turning the city into an oil and gas hub will create pollution, dirtying their air, sea and beaches and leaving them and their world-famous reefs at risk of environmentally disastrous leaks or spills.

For genetic reasons, Israel’s corals are proving more resilient to ocean warming than reefs elsewhere in the world, which are dying, and scientists are studying Eilat’s reef to see if it can be used to help save or rehabilitate other reef systems. Coral reefs support an abundance of undersea life and are considered the marine equivalent of rainforests in terms of environmental importance.

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

“Eilat is a city of nature, tourism and renewable energy. There is no place in it to develop industries or trade in fossil fuels and polluting energy,” Dorit Davidovich-Benet, Director of Strategy and Regional Development at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, told the protest. “We say no to gas and no to oil. … The region is not the Israeli economy’s backyard.”

In October, Israel’s state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Co. (EAPC), formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co., signed a memorandum of understanding with UAE joint venture MED-RED Land Bridge to transport oil and related products from the Gulf to Europe.

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

The oil will be transported by ship from the Persian Gulf to a Red Sea terminal in Eilat, and from there, via an aging overland pipeline that runs through the country’s Arava and Negev deserts, to Ashkelon on the southern Mediterranean coast. From Ashkelon, the oil will be reloaded onto tankers for shipment to markets in Southern Europe.

There are also plans, still at various early stages, to use the Eilat terminal to transport the bonanza of natural gas found in the Mediterranean to the Gulf and the Far East, including talk of a possible liquefaction plant.

An Energy Ministry spokesperson said that the ministry was not aware of any plans for an export-related liquid natural gas facility in Eilat.

Yuval Arbel of the marine environmental organization Zalul, said that EAPC had not consulted with the Foreign, Energy, Environmental Protection or Tourism ministries; nor with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is responsible for the coral reefs; nor with the relevant local authorities in Eilat and Ashkelon.

Dr. Yuval Arbel of the marine environmental organization Zalul. (Courtesy)

“There was no consultation with any of the above bodies,” he said. “After repeated inquiries for more than two months from representatives of the above organizations, Knesset members, mayors and 240 scientists, no official response has yet been received from the ministers and authorities that are responsible for overseeing the EAPC.”

The MED-RED Land Bridge MOU foresees up to 120 oil tankers containing up to 7.9 billion gallons (30 million cubic meters) of crude oil and oil byproducts offloading at the EAPC port in Eilat.

With most Gulf oil passing through the Suez Canal or Egypt’s Sumed pipeline, recent years have seen no more than two or three tankers docking in Eilat annually, mostly carrying oil from Russia and Central Asia, en route to the Far East.

During recent weeks, though, several tankers have docked at the port, and last month residents complained about strong oil smells.

Faithful Warrior, an oil tanker, fills up at the EAPC terminal in Eilat, in southern Israel, January 2021. (Mori Hen, of the not-for-profit Desert and Sea Environment, Eilat)

The Environmental Protection Ministry discovered in January that EAPC had installed a new piece of an apparatus that was faulty, and ordered it to stop work at once.

The Energy Ministry, which is responsible for natural gas, said that along with supporting renewable energy projects in Eilat and the Arava, it “works to ensure the continuity of energy supply even in the medium term, and is committed to planning responsibility that will enable the continuity of energy supply in Israel.”

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

EAPC was established in 1968 as a joint Israeli-Iranian venture to carry Asian oil from Eilat to Europe via a network of pipelines that reach from Eilat to Ashkelon and up the length of Israel to Haifa. The firm is operated by the Finance Ministry, though the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority supervises the terminals.

Due to the nature of EAPC as a joint venture with Iran, the company’s operations are extremely secretive and even today, information connected to it can be censored by the Israeli military.

Six years ago, the company set the ignominious record of causing the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.

The EAPC said in a statement that the company was Israel’s “energy gateway,” whose activities had strategic importance for the energy economy and its ability to run constantly.

“The historic agreement [with the UAE] will strengthen the Israeli economy and ensure energy security for Israel, while strictly and continuously protecting the environment.”

The company also claimed that it was saving Eilat’s reef.

“It is thanks to the EAPC that the coral reef in the Gulf [of Eilat] has been protected and developed over more than 50 years, in parallel with [the company’s] operational work, and that is due to the most stringent safety procedures and the company’s commitment to the environment in which it operates.”

“The company is equipped with the latest safety, prevention and control measures in the field, and its employees undergo periodic training and exercises,” it added.

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