Amid bitter opposition from environmentalists and others, the State Comptroller is looking into the extent to which security concerns were relevant to the government’s decision to locate the processing platform for Israel’s largest natural gas field just 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles, from the shores of central Israel, The Times of Israel has learned.
Citizens’ groups, several local authorities, environmental NGOs and a clutch of academics are fighting an 11th-hour campaign to reverse the decision and have the processing platform moved 125 kilometers (78 miles) away from the coast, to the area of the gas wells themselves.
The protesters fear that a platform so close to densely populated areas of the country risks a major environmental and public health disaster.
The government and Noble Energy — the Texas-based company which is developing and operating the field — strongly deny the claims. A senior figure at Noble Energy, Israel told The Times of Israel that the $4 billion Leviathan is 60% complete and irreversible.
Built in the United States, the processing platform is due to arrive off-shore in December, and its legs are to be lowered into the sea the following month just 9.7 km (6 miles) from the popular Dor Beach, north of Caesarea. Production is due to start a year later.
In a related concern over the Leviathan project, some of the protesters also alleged in Haifa District Court this week that the government has given a permit for a highly toxic by-product of the gas to be piped on land, without meeting key environmental conditions set by the court earlier this year.
The process and the placement
After extraction, raw natural gas must be processed to separate the dry gas used by power plants to run their turbines from two other main components — condensate and waste water.
Condensate forms when gas cools as pressure drops and it rises to the surface of the sea. Used in the oil industry, it contains dangerous and carcinogenic products such as benzene and arsenic.
Waste water that comes out of the well contains high concentrations of heavy metals, mercury and lead.
Throughout the world, companies process both gas and oil either on land, on platforms near the shore, or on a floating vessel close to the wells themselves.
Noble Energy, which developed Israel’s first major natural gas field, Tamar, initially planned to locate processing for the Leviathan field near the wells on an FPSO (Floating, Production, Storage and Offloading), a large floating vessel.
While the gas is piped to shore from an FPSO, the condensate is loaded onto tankers to be taken wherever it is needed.
In a 2013 submission to the National Planning and Building Council, which was charged with creating what became known as National Outline Plan 37 H for all of Israel’s gas fields, the Environmental Protection Ministry recommended that as much processing as possible be carried out at sea.
But according to witnesses who spoke to The Times of Israel, the Council refused to discuss an FPSO option. This was apparently because it had received mistaken technical advice about the number of such vessels that would be needed, and flawed legal advice that it lacked the authority to deal with matters beyond Israel’s territorial waters, which end 22 km (13.5 miles) from the shore.
The Council leaned toward a land-based processing facility, which was what the government then approved.
But in response to a petition, the High Court subsequently ordered that a sea-based option be considered after all.
That process led the government to decide in 2016 to locate the platform less than 10 km from Dor beach.
But in the case of two smaller gas fields, Karish (shark in Hebrew) and Tanin (crocodile), the government did approve use of an FPSO. In explaining the benefits of the floating vessel, the company developing those two fields, Energean, said, “Using an FPSO located 75 km (46 miles) from the Israel coast should result in the development having very low environmental impacts, substantially less than the other schemes considered.”
The spokesperson added, “Environmental impacts should be lower during all project phases: construction, operation and abandonment. …The FPSO scheme also limits the potential for oil pollution resulting from pipeline leaks. Hydrocarbon liquids [condensate] are not transported to shore and hence the consequence of any spillage is significantly reduced,”
Asked why the government decided to locate Leviathan’s processing facility close to the shore, while Karish and Tanin will use an FPSO, the Energy Ministry told The Times of Israel the former was chosen “after many tests, an environmental impact assessment and the considerations of the security establishment.”
Ya’alon steps in
Leviathan holds ten times more gas than Karish and Tanin combined, and twice as much as Tamar, a spokesman said, and only a near-shore option could guarantee its defense.
“Leviathan is of essential importance to Israel’s economy and therefore it is preferable that its production facilities be located within Israel’s territorial waters to ensure maximum protection for our energy security as well as reliability of supply.”
An army spokesperson told The Times of Israel that the IDF had been charged with defending Israel’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 230 miles, or 370 km, from the coast.
“The IDF, via the navy, knows how to defend all of the economic zone. That said, locating the [gas] facilities in close proximity to the shore will improve the level of defense for them. We emphasize that the decision regarding the platform’s location is not limited to security considerations, nor is it within the jurisdiction of the IDF.”
Late last month, however, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon — a sharp critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a self-declared candidate for prime minister — threw a spoke into the wheels of the security reasoning when he revealed to Home Guardians, one of the citizen groups campaigning for an FPSO, that during his tenure from 2013 to 2016, the plan was to locate the production facilities close to the wells and that no discussions were ever held about moving them closer to the shore.
Ya’alon checked recently with senior defense brass who, he wrote to Home Guardians, knew nothing about the location change.
On the contrary, he wrote that he saw a “defense advantage” to a Leviathan FPSO, because new warships ordered to defend the gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea were “supposed to give defense coverage to the drilling wells and production platform as one unit.”
Ya’alon added that, “if the issue had been brought before me for a security assessment, I would have recommended approving the original plan which was based on a sea platform close to the Leviathan drilling and not a separate platform close to the shore.”
Ya’alon resigned from the government on May 20, 2016.
The near-shore location of the platform was approved by the government a month before he left.
Ya’alon asked the state comptroller to look into the matter. Now, indeed, a spokesman for the ombudsman told The Times of Israel, “the security aspect of the decision-making process regarding the location of the gas platform is being examined.”
The first of four German-built Sa’ar 6 corvettes is due to reach Israel in November 2019 to be equipped with highly sensitive detection equipment, offensive weapons and interceptors for both simpler ballistic attacks and advanced guided missiles.
Great cause for concern?
Those campaigning for the platform to be replaced by an FPSO or something similar, may have woken up too late.
After successfully helping to force the government to change course over the location of the Tamar platform — which is today situated 23 km (14 miles) off the coast, close to the southern city of Ashkelon — they were caught off guard by the plan for such a near-shore platform for Leviathan and were shocked to discover Environmental Protection Ministry figures for potentially carcinogenic air emissions from Tamar.
Data for 2016, published by the ministry in November 2017, clearly shows that emissions from Tamar that are “known or suspected to be carcinogenic” equaled the total of such emissions from 570 large industrial plants across the country, including the Haifa oil refineries.
Indeed, according to Amy Rosenstein, a risk assessment and toxicology consultant, Tamar’s non-methane VOC emissions (a variety of chemically different compounds, such as highly carcinogenic benzene) were 30 times higher than Noble had originally predicted in the environmental impact assessment it had been required to carry out before operating the field.
In something of a rearguard action, the ministry ordered Noble to design a program for emissions reduction to be incorporated as conditions for a license that was due to be signed in the first half of this year.
The Energy Ministry has meanwhile announced online that Tamar’s platform will be upgraded to reduce total air emissions from 1,160 tons to just 10 tons per year.
In light of these revelations, the people living within a radius of Dor Beach are wondering whether they can trust Noble’s promises about the Leviathan platform’s safety.
Prof. Richard Steiner, a world expert on marine conservation, who advises governments and citizen groups about the impact of drilling and mining, told a press conference organized by the campaigners earlier this month that on the basis of the publicly available information, there was great cause for concern.
He said he saw “an old pattern of governments accepting information from the industry” and of an “inherent contradiction in the government’s role as both the beneficiary of revenues and the regulator.”
To buttress his claim that the government is behaving with a lack of transparency, he displayed a 2017 amendment to a 2016 environmental impact assessment carried out for Noble Energy in which most of the information in the second half of the document has been “redacted” or blacked out. (See from p. 31).
“Everything we need to know about the technical details for making this a safe project has been eliminated,” he said. “When we asked why, they said it was to protect security and commercial secrets.
“On a daily basis, the concern [about a platform so close to shore] is marine discharge from waste water, which contains heavy metals, as well as air pollution, noise, seabed habitat disturbance and the visual impact of a big platform 10 kilometers off Dor Beach,” he said.
“But I’m most worried about the catastrophic impact risk.”
In a stinging 73-page report on the Leviathan project, Steiner says that Noble’s documents fail to provide a “clear plan for preventing well blowouts [the uncontrolled release of gas in cases where pressure control systems fail] or seabed pipeline failure… pipeline leak detection, personnel training… near-casualty reporting and investigation, risk assessment, subcontractor management, and equipment maintenance and surveillance.”
The company’s information, he charges, is “poorly integrated, redundant, [and] often inconsistent,” with “significant errors… significant gaps in essential information, and often … vague and general assertions lacking detail” – all factors which make it hard for the public to understand the project and evaluate potential risks.
The documents “understate the risks and impacts of the Leviathan project” and “overstate response capabilities.”
Noble Energy’s reliance on mechanical methods and chemicals used to disperse oil slicks is mistaken, he charges, because they are “not known to be effective in most condensate release scenarios.”
That view was echoed by Alex Hunt, a technical manager at the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation in London, which assists with oil spills around the world.
Following January’s disastrous collision of an Iranian condensate-carrying tanker with a Chinese cargo ship off Shanghai, Hunt told The Atlantic, “Condensate, as you might expect, is highly flammable ….There is the classic image of a spill at sea — black oil floating on the water, people attempting to use booms and skimmers or to use dispersants. In a case like this, a product like this, those techniques would not be recommended. It’s flammable so you wouldn’t want to contain it, or use a skimmer to recover it, because then you are risking a fire.”
Steiner went on to say that following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when an oil drilling rig ignited and exploded, kick-starting the biggest marine oil spill disaster in history, it is unacceptable that Leviathan’s documents “fail to account for the many ways in which a complex system such as a deep water gas project can fail…. catastrophic risks have not been adequately assessed.”
He said, “Natural gas (99% methane) is known to be toxic to marine organisms, particularly at warmer water temperatures…found off the coast of Israel. The lack of detailed evaluation of a large gas release is a significant gap in the environmental assessment of the project” which suggests “a troubling sense of complacency about this very real risk.”
Steiner discovered that a Leviathan well had indeed blown out before reaching any gas reserves during an experimental drill by Noble Energy in May 2011, with the result that briny water spilled out into the sea for 16 months until the well was plugged. The impact on the sea bed reportedly lasted for at least five years.
The slow response time “calls into question the veracity of many of the well control assertions made in the documents,” Steiner said.
Noble’s Energy’s environmental impact assessment for one of the blocks in the Tamar Field Development Project noted that, “Because the Application Area is more than ten km from the Israeli coast, onshore air quality is not reviewed in this report,” indicating that for a project within 10 km of the shore, it should be.
Yet for the Leviathan project, it did not prepare a comprehensive health assessment because Israeli environmental impact assessment law does not explicitly require it.
Instead, according to Amy Rosenstein, who was brought to Israel by the campaigners to address the press conference alongside Steiner, it complied with the “minimum requirements” of the Environmental Protection Ministry and produced an EIA [environmental impact assessment] in 2016 that claimed “with little supporting evidence provided, that potential impacts to the health and safety of affected communities have been assessed and no significant impacts have been identified.”
It is crucial, Rosenstein claimed, to have a detailed health assessment carried out to meet international standards in developed countries, and because the platform will be the closest of all the oil and gas facilities to Israel’s shore.
Warning that emissions into the water could potentially contaminate desalination plants and fish, Rosenstein writes, “Based on the record of Noble Energy at the existing Tamar platform…. where emissions have been significantly greater (by more than an order of magnitude) than predicted, and at its gas platforms around the world, where similarly high emissions, as well as accidents, have been recorded, it is vitally important to predict and understand the impacts of the proposed platform on the health of people living at the shore.”
In April 2015, Noble Energy, Inc. agreed a $73 million settlement with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the State of Colorado over “issues with vapor control systems” at Noble’s condensate storage tank batteries in Colorado.
Haifa court battle
For Leviathan, Noble Energy is planning a backup condensate storage tank at the Hagit power plant, east of Route 70 between the northern towns of Zichron Yaakov and Yokneam.
Racing against the clock, Home Guardians – which is planning a mass protest in Tel Aviv on September 1 — asked the Haifa District Court on Tuesday to temporarily delay the award of a permit to Noble Energy to operate a condensate pipe on land that will connect the platform to the national oil pipeline that takes crude oil to the Haifa Refineries.
Lawyers for the group told the court that the government approved the permit on Monday despite the court’s ruling in May conditioning such a permit on Noble Energy providing an emergency plan for a condensate leak that had to be approved by the environmental protection ministry.
Those conditions, the lawyers said, had not been met.
Who’s in charge?
Zalul, a veteran NGO dedicated to protecting the marine environment, has been focusing on the potential effects of Israel’s gas fields since 2012.
It lamented what it says is the excessive authority granted to the Energy Ministry at the expense of the environmental protection ministry and the difficulty of obtaining information from the former.
One of the key conclusions in the US and Europe following the Gulf of Mexico disaster has been to ensure a complete separation between government departments working to advance oil and gas extraction and those charged with protecting the environment, the organization said.
“Since January 2018, the energy and environmental protection ministries have refused to provide answers to both the Local Authorities Association and a citizens’ NGO about emergency planning for both the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields. In May, the environmental protection ministry wrote that the energy ministry did not wish it to be made available to the public,” it noted.
The Times of Israel tried to ascertain who is supervising the activity of government on this issue.
A review of Knesset committee debates reveals that since 2014, no discussions relating to natural gas have taken place within the interior and environmental protection committee.
A committee spokesperson said that matters connected to energy [but not the potential environmental implications of energy initiatives] are overseen by the economic affairs committee which , according to the protocols, has discussed natural gas fairly frequently.
The interior and environmental protection committee, the spokesperson continued, is one of the most overloaded in the Knesset. In addition to environment, it is responsible for internal security, interior ministry matters (including all local government and planning and building issues) and religious services.
It is the committee chairman, currently the Likud’s Yoav Kisch, who decides which subjects to discuss.
Asked what happened if fears are raised about an environmental issue, the spokesperson said, “We’ll often just ask for a report from an NGO or from the Environmental Protection Ministry.”
Noble: No going back
The Energy Ministry, meanwhile, remains upbeat about the near-shore Leviathan processing platform.
A spokesman said it would create pollution neither on the beach nor in the sea.
The platform will contain “advanced technology” for environmental protection, including “a closed system” for the handling of natural gas with “advanced means of monitoring, supervision and control to prevent any deviations from environmental conditions in the air and sea, as defined by the environmental protection ministry,” said the spokesman.
Furthermore, the operation of Leviathan will enable the closure of four coal power-generating units in nearby coastal Hadera, significantly reducing air pollution in Israel overall, the spokesman said.
Bini Zomer, Noble Energy’s VP for Regional Affairs, said, “This is an irreversible $4 billion project that is 60% complete. The legs of the platform will be set in January. The pipelines have been laid from the field to the platform and from the platform to the shore. There is no going back on this and it’s a shame some people thing this is still a possibility.”
He explained, “We’ll have a maximum of around 2,000 barrels-worth of condensate on the platform at any one time.
“If you have an FPSO far from the shore, you’ll be storing condensate in the hull and there will be hundreds of thousands of barrels so that the impact of a spill could be far greater and take longer to reach to clean up.
“If you have a pipeline [from the wells to the platform and from the platform to the shore] it’s the safest way to transport anything. They’re designed for 50 years. There’s no movement. They are seamlessly welded,” he went on. “But with an FPSO, you have to transport the condensate by ship.”
Zomer added, “We are required to have an oil spill response plan — condensate is a lighter version of oil — and we have a strict regimen, which we train for.”
Waste water, meanwhile, would be flushed back into the sea close to the platform but only after it had been treated to meet environmental protection ministry regulations.
Regarding transparency, said Nobel’s Zomer, “All the information is available on the Ministry of Environmental Protection website. This is probably one of the most transparent infrastructure projects in the history of Israel.”