State halts test of Leviathan gas rig, saying company didn’t meet criteria

Noble Energy is told additional approvals needed before it can conduct the pipe-flushing procedure, which has raised concerns of dangerous pollution along the coast

The Leviathan natural gas platform off the shore of Israel. (Albatross)
The Leviathan natural gas platform off the shore of Israel. (Albatross)

The Environmental Protection Ministry on Monday ordered the Noble Energy firm to postpone a planned test of its gas rig off Israel’s northern coast, saying that the company had failed to meet the necessary criteria for the procedure.

The Leviathan extraction platform had been set to perform an initial test of its systems early on Tuesday morning. In the test, workers would flush out the nitrogen currently filling the rig’s pipes. Though the company maintained that the chemicals involved were safe, environmental groups argue that they could have carcinogenic effects and many residents along the coast have expressed concerns over the release of potential pollutants.

“The ministry is aware of the discomfort caused to residents of the area by this situation, but it maintains that the conditions that have been put in place in order to oversee the running [of the facility] will be met in full for the good of the public and the environment,” the Environmental Protection Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said the company had not met the criteria and conditions needed to carry out the test, without specifying what those requirements were.

Noble Energy had been instructed to carry out the necessary procedures and then again request permission from the ministry to perform the test. Once approved, the firm would choose a new day to carry out the test, giving residents of the surrounding area at least two days’ notice.

The company said the Environmental Protection Ministry was requiring additional steps ahead of the test.

“Noble Energy is sure to comply with all permits and approvals required of it. The Environmental Protection Ministry is asking to perform an additional validation of the analysis machinery, beyond the existing validation,” the firm said.

The ministry said in its statement that it still did not believe that the test posed a threat to nearby coastal communities and that the harmful chemicals being released by the rig — notably benzene — were not expected to be at sufficiently high levels to negatively impact the health of residents.

“The Environmental Protection Ministry clarifies that there are no special instructions in terms of stopping activities or changing daily behavior for residents of the area, including during the pipe-flushing on the gas rig,” the ministry said.

Despite the assurances there have been multiple reports of residents of coastal communities leaving their homes ahead of the planned test due to health fears.

Ishay Ataar, a 46-year-old father of four, lives in Kibbutz Nahsholim. He took vacation from work and spent NIS 1,700 ($490) on accommodation for his family in Tel Aviv to avoid the feared pollution.

The frustrated Ataar said the family was already in Tel Aviv by the time the test was cancelled.

“We evacuated our house and rented an Airbnb in Tel Aviv for our family with four children. It takes pretty much a whole day to pack for a family with four kids, and it was all for nothing,” Ataar said. “I manage a startup company and this is really harming our operation, but I felt I needed to do it to keep my kids safe.”

A crane vessel makes its way to Israel to help set up the Leviathan natural gas platform. (Noble Energy)

Last week, Jerusalem’s District Court ruled that the test of the Leviathan gas rig — located across from the town of Zichron Ya’akov, south of Haifa — could go ahead as planned.

After temporarily halting the test to review petitions by the six local governments, Judge Eli Abarbanel ruled that the petitioners had failed to provide professional testimonies to refute the opinions of state professionals who deemed the test safe.

Under those circumstances, concerns raised by the petitioners did not justify the harm to the natural gas pumping project off the country’s coast.

In a statement, the consortium behind Leviathan said it welcomed the court’s decision, and said the project “has been subject to rigorous oversight by the ministries of energy and environmental protection and various other regulatory bodies.

“The natural gas from Leviathan will improve Israel’s air quality by displacing coal, improve Israel’s environment, provide security of supply and create unprecedented commercial ties in the region,” the statement read.

The test is a key step before the new rig, 10 kilometers (six miles) offshore, can begin pumping natural gas out of the Leviathan field in the Mediterranean, which is expected to transform Israel into an energy powerhouse.

Dor beach, near Haifa, in northern Israel, close to which the Leviathan natural gas platform is located, September 9, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The test had originally been scheduled for last Wednesday or Thursday.

Activists have threatened to organize an immediate mass evacuation of residents from affected municipalities south of Haifa, who would then march toward Tel Aviv in protest.

Energy companies and the government say the planned test is safe and that they have expert opinions to support this, but in Hof Hacarmel and five other municipalities, mayors argue it will spread dangerous amounts of cancer-causing pollutants.

The petition claimed that during a single eight-hour test, more pollutants would be released than in a year or two of regular drilling operations.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said this week that gas could start flowing before the new year, signing off on a permit to allow exports to Egypt.

The discovery of Leviathan and other large offshore gas fields has spurred excitement by some in resource-poor Israel, which is expected to see billions of dollars in revenue from the energy extraction. However, activists have warned of environmental damage, especially along coastal areas opposite the rigs.

Activists concerned by the threat of pollution from the Leviathan gas field gather at Dor Beach in northern Israel on December 13, 2019. (Shoham Efrati)

In October, a prestigious scientific journal published an academic study that found that environmental impact assessments carried out by Noble Energy for the Leviathan platform “grossly” underestimated the quantity of polluting emissions, contained “a series of flaws,” relied on “overly simplistic” models and should be redone more professionally.

The findings were rejected by Noble Energy, which said that it was installing technology on the platform that would keep emissions close to zero.

Located in the Mediterranean Sea 125 kilometers (77 miles) west of Haifa, the Leviathan field is estimated to hold 22 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, and a potential half a million barrels of oil, according to estimates provided by the partners in the field.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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