Green-lighting plans that remain contentious among environmentalists and area residents, the Northern District Committee for Planning and Building approved on Thursday a program for exploratory oil drilling in the Golan Heights.

The approved exploration plans, to be conducted by Afek Oil and Gas, involve three years of exploratory drilling for conventional oil, through 10 wells in the Golan Heights region. Following a favorable recommendation from the Petroleum Council in February 2013, Afek received its exploratory drilling license in April 2013 for a 395-sq. km. plot south of Katzrin. The company filed its plans with the Northern District Committee in November 2013 and ultimately received permit approval at Thursday’s meeting.

Afek Oil is a subsidiary of the New Jersey-based Genie Energy Ltd., which is also the parent company of Israel Energy Initiatives – the firm that holds the license for an in-situ oil shale project in the south-central Israel Shfela basin.

After evaluating a wide range of opinions and hearing from opposing area residents and environmental NGOs, the Northern District Committee elected to issue the permit on Thursday, with the support of the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Water Authority, a statement from the Interior Ministry said. Exploratory drilling under the approved plans will not involve fracking and does not include the production of oil that is not in liquid form, the committee stressed.

“From the information that was presented to the regional committee, exploratory oil drilling, similar to exploratory water reservoir drilling, is conducted on a regular basis,” the statement said. “When drilling is implemented while maintaining safety measures, water resources and residents of the region are also protected.”

According to the permit, the exploratory drilling will take place in a gradual manner, in order to allow for an examination team to ensure that all activities are occurring safely, the committee added.

“If oil is found, in commercial quantities, and if the Energy Ministry declares the drilling a ‘discovery,’ as per the Petroleum Law, the developers will need in accordance with the Planning and Building Law to submit a detailed plan for the district committee’s approval,” the Interior Ministry statement said. “In addition, the committee felt that the drilling is likely to help in providing knowledge about the groundwater reserves in the region.”

Several Knesset members, including MKs Dov Henin (Hadash), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) have been very critical of the plans in the past few months. Henin has particularly expressed concerns for the fate of the nearby Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), while Zandberg has slammed the licensing and permitting procedures as void of transparency. Lipman, meanwhile, has argued that Israel has the ability to produce 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2040, and therefore may not need these potential oil reserves.

In a meeting last month with The Jerusalem Post, however, Afek Oil CEO Geoffrey Rochwarger, stressed that the company had conducted comprehensive environmental impact assessments and had received backing from the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry as well as the Environmental Protection Ministry.

In response to the decision, Afek Oil praised the Northern District Committee for approving the permit for the southern Golan Heights.

“We hope that the drilling will bear fruit and lead Israel to energy and security independence,” a statement from the company said.

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