Environment: Unprepared for disaster
Israel is preparing for a natural gas bonanza, but does not have a legal framework to deal with a potential environmental catastrophe.
Oil drilling platform. Photo: Lee Celano/Reuters
As Israel prepares itself to receive an influx of natural gas from its Tamar
reservoir in the upcoming months, experts are concerned that the country’s
environmental law framework is entirely ill-equipped to face the potential
ramifications of the extraction process.
“The current situation is
convenient for industry,” Dr. David Schorr, chairman of the Law and Environment
Program at Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann Faculty of Law, told The Jerusalem
Post on Wednesday. “There is obviously a lot of pressure from their quarter not
to have a big legal reform in this area.”
Both classic regulation
defining environmental procedure and liability specifying who is responsible for
disaster cleanup are starkly missing from the Israeli legal infrastructure
regarding offshore oil and gas drilling, the professor
Immediately after Passover, Schorr will publish a new policy
paper, titled “Environmental Regulation of Offshore Drilling: Tort Liability and
Insurance for Environmental Damage from Offshore Gas and Oil Drilling,”
analyzing the situation. The way Israeli environmental law stands today –
particularly because the drilling occurs in the country’s economic waters and
not its territorial waters – no one will be held accountable for any damages
that occur as a result of the ongoing work there, the paper argues.
government itself is of two minds,” Schorr told the Post. “On the one hand,
people are aware in the Environment Ministry of how dangerous the current
situation is. On the other, everyone is also very anxious that these gas fields
be developed as quickly as possible.”
With an influx of natural gas will
come cheaper energy, royalties for the government and an alternative to burning
much dirtier fuels, Schorr noted.
No matter where in the world it occurs,
oil and gas drilling always risks inflicting great damage upon the surrounding
ecosystem in both routine and accidental capacities, Schorr writes. While most
of these damages will be environmental – such as sea pollution, coastal
contamination and damage to flora and fauna – there are also plenty of possible
negative economic ramifications, including the harming of tourism, fishing and
other marine and coastal-based industries.
As seen in the aftermath of
the 2010 British Petroleum Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, potential damages
from drilling accidents can reach up to billions of dollars – about $40 billion
in that case – yet Israeli law fails to pinpoint what authority would be
responsible for handling such a disaster, the report says. Possible harm could
include bodily injuries to rig employees, beach-side property damage, influx of
invasive species accompanying the rigs, poisoning of fish and mammals and
creation of biological “dead zones.” From the economic perspective, damages
could spread to tourism and to sea dependent industries, such as beaches or
desalination facilities, according to the paper.
“There is no dedicated
law or regulation that defines the responsibility for these damages,” the
“Damage to the environment is not defined or known, and
therefore, is expected to remain without repair or compensation.”
problematic is the fact that Israel does not define a trustee for natural
resources who would be capable of suing the offender for environmental damages,
the report explains.
The current government liability scheme is therefore
one of negligence, which does not place responsibility for cleanup and
restitution on the polluters, the paper continues.
In other countries, the legal
situation regarding environmental ramifications of drilling is much more
defined. The United States, for example, has a law dedicated to the subject of
oil and gas pollution, which answers most of these questions. The law imposes
strict liability on those responsible for causing the contamination and defines
a trustee over natural resources with suing powers. England has similar
regulations formed within the European Directive for Environmental Liability, as
does Norway, which has a specific law regarding petroleum activity and the
responsibility of the license-holders, the authors write.
Looking at the
situation in Israel, the authors recommend that the government immediately adopt
a regulation that clearly defines who is liable for drilling hazards,
particularly imposing strict liability on those responsible for the damage. It
is likewise crucial to include a protocol that grants power to a natural
resources trustee to sue those who have brought about the contamination – which
could potentially be the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature
and Parks Authority or non-government organizations that are recognized by
The regulation should also determine the amount of compensation
money to be paid in such a case; mandate a plan for environmental
rehabilitation; and suggest an action plant for damage that cannot be
reimbursed, the authors continue. Meanwhile, the regulation should stipulate
that the driller must purchase liability insurance, although partial liability
would be imposed on an alternative responsible party – those financing the
project. In addition, drillers would need to show a minimum amount of assets
before engaging in such a drilling project, the authors add.
British Petroleum has sufficient financial backing to fund the rehabilitation
efforts caused by their rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the same can not be
said for Noble Energy, the largest shareholder of the drilling contingent in
Israel’s Mediterranean, Schorr tells the Post.
“Not only that the damage
would go uncompensated, but it also means that they are deterred much less,” he
says. “They don’t have as good of an incentive to be
Supervision of regulations related to drilling would best be
placed under the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry, rather than
the Energy and Water Ministry, where a conflict of interest would ensue due to
the needs of industry, Schorr explained.
Even better would have been the
establishment of a unified Environment and Energy Ministry, he
“Given that that’s not what happened, the decision has been made
to run with this without thinking about the downsides of gas and oil
development; I think it’s important that the regulator be independent of those
who see their job as furthering development,” Schorr says.
Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) also expressed their
preference that any supervision regarding offshore oil and gas occur under the
Environmental Protection Ministry.
“We think that the true solution is
that you have to separate between the Energy Ministry and the Environment
Ministry and give the Environment Ministry the whole authority,” says Dana
Tabachnik, head of economics and environment at Adam Teva V’Din. “I think that’s
one of the only solutions you can do, and do it now.”
As the situation
currently stands, the Energy and Water Ministry handles all aspects of drilling,
a circumstance that Adam Teva V’Din finds problematic.
Focusing on the
civil liability issue first would be the easiest way to move forward toward a
quick and efficient establishment of environmental regulations in the offshore
drilling sector, Schorr stresses. As occurs in the US, if someone contaminates
the sea and thereby kills seals or birds, the government or another body should
be able to immediately sue the offenders, he adds.
Because most of the
drilling occurs outside Israeli the territorial waters and is not technically
governed by Israeli law, a legal reform would be required “so that someone could
step in on [nature’s] behalf and sue,” Schorr says.
Two months ago,
however, Deputy Attorney-General Avi Licht drafted an official opinion stressing
that all Israeli laws and environmental regulations must apply to the economic
waters where most drilling occurs – also called the Exclusive Economic Zone.
Although this opinion has not technically yet been transformed into law,
Tabachnik says that Adam Teva V’Din views Licht’s interpretation as equivalent
to law,and that none of the drilling companies in the Israeli Mediterranean have
objected to his opinion.
“With respect to the enforcement against and
punishment of polluters, it must be emphasized that environmental laws do apply
to economic waters – as per Avi Licht’s opinion – and empowers Adam Teva V’Din
to file claims for damages and crimes against the polluters,” Tabachnik tells
She stresses, however, that her organization supports Schorr’s
report and agrees entirely that there must be a “separation of powers” when it
comes to drilling supervision and licensing.
“We welcome all academic
research related to the regulation of oil and gas drilling,” she says.