A day after blueprints for an oil shale pilot project crumbled in the hands of a district planning committee, environmentalists celebrated a sweeping victory, while developers expressed uncertainty about their future steps.
On Tuesday, after 10 hours of intense debate, the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building voted to thwart the pilot drilling project of Israel Energy Initiatives – a company eager to prove the viability of about 40 billion barrels of oil found in the Shfela basin’s shale rock layer. IEI executives voiced hopes of bringing energy independence to Israel by means of secure and non-polluting technologies, but environmentalists slammed the plans as anything but safe.
The Jerusalem District Committee, directed by Dalit Zilber, ultimately turned down the project, in a 13 to 1 vote, with two abstentions. Following Tuesday’s hearing, which was a direct continuation from an August 4 session, the committee members decided to reject the application for the pilot “after considering all aspects of the issue,” a statement from the Interior Ministry said.
Among the committee were a wide range of representatives from several ministries and authorities, according to the Interior Ministry. In addition to the district commissioner and district planner, members included representatives from the Environmental Protection Ministry, Defense Ministry, Housing and Construction Ministry, Health Ministry, Agriculture Ministry, Justice Ministry, Tourism Ministry, Israel Lands Authority, public environmental organizations, local authorities and the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry.
The Energy Ministry representative was the sole vote in favor of the plans, according to reports.
IEI had hoped to move on to the pilot phase of a project for which it had completed exploratory trials in 2011.
Advancing to the pilot had encountered delays due to both environmental opposition and regulatory changes.
Although the entire license zone may contain up to 40 billion barrels of oil, the pilot phase would have involved just one drilling site and production facility, through which IEI had planned to extract about 500 barrels of oil. Only if the pilot project was successful, and if the government had deemed the resource worth pursuing, could the company have continued to a demonstration phase, followed by a full commercial phase.
While IEI described its technology, which involves in-situ heating of the shale rock to produce lightweight oil on site, as environmentally friendly, green groups argued that such tools had never been operated on a commercial scale anywhere else in the world.
The Environmental Protection Ministry, led by its minister Amir Peretz, expressed heavy criticism for both the commercial scale and pilot version of the projects in recent months.
Stressing that the pilot itself presented pollution risks, Environment Ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that “there is no way that if a pilot had succeeded, it would not continue to commercial production.”
The day before, Peretz had praised the committee’s decision as particularly important for the country’s children, who could now be certain that “the natural resources of Israel will be preserved and serve them in the future,” if necessary.
Asked whether the minister was thereby assenting to future oil shale development, ministry officials said that the resource should be saved for a crisis situation and used only in a case that the country truly needs it – if, for example, no natural gas was left in 50 years and the country had no cleaner alternatives.
In addition to the Environmental Protection Ministry, leading opposition groups against the plans included; Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense), Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Greenpeace and Green Course.
Dr. Orr Karassin, who lectures in the Open University’s sociology department and is chairwoman of the sustainable development committee of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund Board of Directors, was particularly vocal in criticizing the project during the open portion of Tuesday’s committee session.
Prior to the meeting, she drafted a letter that examined the perceived design flaws of the pilot, particularly stressing that the structure of the technology for the project would be different from that of a commercial facility. While the pilot project would contain vertical drilling wells, the commercial project would involve horizontal ones, and the heating subsurface technologies would also vary, she stressed.
Nearly 30 professors and doctors from various departments at universities across Israel signed Karassin’s letter.
“The pilot was to be rejected because it was fundamentally flawed: It could not provide the answers to the many uncertainties that required improved knowledge and understanding,” she told the Post on Wednesday.
“It is like trying to experiment with a novel medicine without giving the patients the medicine that is under experimentation. You just can’t design what should be a research facility if it does not closely resemble the full scale technology you are trying to study.”
In Karassin’s view, following through with the pilot program would only “aggravate many of the uncertainties that were of public concern,” such as possibilities for fractures, air pollution, infiltration of oxygen into the shale layer or jeopardizing the so-called impermeable layer between the water aquifer and the shale due to the heating process.
Regarding the concern about the aquifer, IEI CEO Relik Shafir told the Post in a June interview that geologists had confirmed that the heat could not crack the 200 m. impermeable layer of rock between the shale and the aquifer.
Nonetheless, even if such a crack somehow occurred, the upward pressure would be so high that water would only be able to shoot upward, rather than oil spilling downward, according to Shafir.
Water Authority hydrologists supported IEI’s claims that no harm would come to the aquifer during the pilot project.
“Our standing about the whole project would have been decided by the results of the pilot,” the authority’s spokesman Uri Schor told the Post on Wednesday. “The pilot itself would not have caused any damage to the groundwater.”
To be on the safe side, however, the Water Authority would have carefully monitored the project throughout its duration, Schor said.
The monitoring plan would have occurred according to the specific demands of the authority, with its workers accompanying the project every step of the way, he added.
Whether or not the aquifer was genuinely at risk, Karassin and her colleagues expressed a series of other concerns associated with the project – particularly the idea that “Israel’s regulatory infrastructure was totally unequipped to handle this kind of industry – a huge underground chemical operation.”
“This would just be too much of a challenge and no one wanted to take the risk of failing at regulating, monitoring and enforcing this industry with so many unknown risks,” she said.
Karassin praised the committee members for displaying “moral fortitude and professionalism in studying the enormous amount of scientific and technical data” associated with the project.
“This is a case in which we have to commend our civil servants for not taking the easy route and overcoming the enormous pressures that were placed on them along the way, but especially during these last final weeks,” she said.
“The committee’s decision represents a consensual understanding that human health, welfare and sustainable development come before short term profit and easy development of non-renewable resources.”
In response to the Tuesday decision, Shafir told the Post that evening that IEI was uncertain about its next step.
An official company statement on Wednesday echoed similar sentiments.
“The IEI company is studying the committee’s decision and is considering in what manner to act,” the statement said.