Terminating a several-year saga that has pitted claims of energy independence against environmental risk, the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building voted to reject the Shfela basin oil shale pilot drilling project on Tuesday evening.
The project under debate was that of Jerusalem-based Israel Energy Initiatives, which has for years been aiming to prove the viability of approximately 40 billion barrels of oil found in the shale rock layer of the Shfela basin in south-central Israel. Although the company completed the exploratory phase of its project in 2011 – required due to the newness of the technology being tested – environmental opposition and regulatory changes delayed moving on to a pilot stage.
Tuesday’s 10-hour committee meeting was a direct continuation of a previous discussion on August 4, during which a decision on the project was postponed after nearly nine hours of deliberations.
In Tuesday’s meeting, 10 committee members voted against the plan, one voted in favor and two abstained.
“This is an important day for the environment and for the citizens of Israel, who won one of the most beautiful and toured parts of Israel,” said Environmental Minister Amir Peretz, who has been vocal against the project. “This is also an important day particularly for our children, who can be sure that the natural resources of Israel will be preserved and serve them in the future in the event that it is required.”
Israel Energy Initiatives, which is a subsidiary of the New Jersey firm Genie Energy, has estimated that approximately 40 billion barrels of oil lie between 200 m. and 400 m. below Ella Valley’s surface, enmeshed among 70-millionyear- old fossils.
The pilot phase would have involved just one drilling site and production facility within IEI’s license zone, through which the company would extract 500 barrels of oil – about two barrels per day.
Only after the successful completion of the pilot project would a demonstration phase, followed by a full commercial phase, have been able to move forward.
If the project had progressed to a commercial scale, the company would have drilled a production pipeline surrounded by a ring of in-situ heating wells, gradually heating the rock over the course of nine months to 300 degrees centigrade and thereby transform it into lightweight oil on site.
IEI has faced heavy opposition to its plans since their initial proposal due to the fact that the technology involved has not yet been used on a commercial scale anywhere in the world.
Reiterating the fact that an impermeable, 200-m. layer of rock separates the shale layer from the region’s aquifer, the company has pledged time and again that the drilling cannot harm the environment – statements that have been corroborated by Water Authority hydrologists.
In a June interview with The Jerusalem Post, IEI CEO Relik Shafir, spoke of “energy independence and a commercial value that will bear fruit to the tune of at least NIS 10 billion a year,” which could occur as a result of a successful commercial venture in the region.
Nonetheless, the company faced immense opposition, beginning in the political arena when Adam Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense filed a High Court petition in August 2010, arguing that the plans were subject only to an archaic 1952 Petroleum Law that lacks suitable environmental constraints.
By April 2012, the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry issued regulations that tightened environmental procedures for such projects, but still did not subject the plans to the country’s planning and building laws – which led Adam Teva V’Din to file further High Court petitions.
Following the vote on Tuesday evening, Amit Bracha, executive director of the nongovernmental organization, called the committee’s decision “brave and just.”
“We praise the elected officials who did not bow down to economic interests and preferred environmental protection, health and future generations,” Bracha said.
Meanwhile, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel stressed that Tuesday’s discussions indicated that the plans “were shrouded in secrecy,” adding that many key questions about the project remain unanswered.
“Accordingly, there is no place for oil drilling in the Judean lowlands, and this is a brave and appropriate decision of the committee,” a statement from SPNI said.
Dr. Jonathan Aikenbaum, of Greenpeace, accused the oil shale project of clashing with “Israel’s international obligations to reduce greenhouse gases” as well as with government decisions on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
“We are happy and proud of the district committee for passing a resolution in favor of Israel,” Aikenbaum said.
Speaking with the Post on Tuesday evening after receiving word that the project had been rejected, Shafir said, “We don’t know the reasoning, but we know that they decided that they don’t want to have the pilot in that area.”
The only stated reason that the company received for the rejection, was that the area is environmentally sensitive, he explained.
Asked if IEI’s quest to develop the region’s oil shale was over, Shafir said he was uncertain.
“We have to learn and make our decisions,” he added. “But we’ll take our time and think about what options we have and then we’ll make a decision.”