At long last and after many delays, the fate of the Shfela basin oil shale pilot drilling project will likely be decided next Tuesday, when the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building reconvenes to determine the program’s future.

The project in question is that of Jerusalem-based Israel Energy Initiatives, which has long been aiming to prove the usability of approximately 40 billion barrels of oil found in the shale rock layer of the Shfela basin in south-central Israel.

The company, a subsidiary of the New Jersey firm Genie Energy, completed the exploratory stage of its project in 2011 but has faced delays beginning the pilot stage as a result of environmental opposition and regulatory changes.

IEI and a series of geologists continue to maintain that an impermeable, 200-meter layer of rock separates the shale from the region’s aquifer, and drilling will entail green, underground oil-heating.

The pilot phase would consist of one drilling site and production facility within IEI’s license zone, through which the company would extract 500 barrels of oil – about 2 barrels per day.

Only after the successful completion of a pilot program could a demonstration phase and then a full commercial phase commence, the company said.

Despite IEI’s guarantees that the project will cause no environmental damage, the company has faced immense opposition, due to the fact that its technology has not yet been used commercially anywhere in the world. In August 2010, Adam Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense filed a High Court petition arguing that the technology has not been deemed effective and safe, and yet is subject only to an archaic 1952 Petroleum Law that lacks environmental constraints.

By April 2012, the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry issued regulations that tightened construction guidelines and environmental procedures for such projects, but still did not subject the plans to the country’s planning and building laws – which has led Adam Teva V’Din to file further High Court petitions.

Next Tuesday’s meeting will be a continuation of a previous discussion on August 4, during which a decision was postponed after nearly nine hours of discussion.

“The committee must ensure public health and preserve the unique regions of the Adullam Valley, and not give in to developers who want to make the area a petrochemical industrial area,” Adam Teva V’Din said on Tuesday.

Keren Halperin-Museri, deputy director of Adam Teva V’Din, stressed that the air pollution risks associated with oil production are great, as is the amount of energy required for the production process.

“We are talking about amounts that will require the establishment of new large power plants – in a country in which air pollution levels are quite high anyway.” Halperin- Museri said.

Alongside Adam Teva V’Din representatives present at the August 4 meeting were also members of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Green Course, Greenpeace, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, as well as the Mateh Yehuda, Yoav and Lachish regional councils. Together, the environmentalists claimed, they were aiming to present a fight for the sake of nature and the landscape of the Judean foothills – the Shfela region.

A SPNI summary of the meeting cited Mateh Yehuda Regional Council chairman Moshe Dadon calling upon the committee members to protect the region’s open spaces and safeguard residents from what he described as “delusional interests.”

Yoav Regional Council head Matti Tzarfati Harcabi likewise expressed his dissatisfaction with the plans during the August meeting, stressing, “We have no other land – this is the land of the Bible and we must preserve it,” according to the SPNI meeting summary.

Shoni Goldberg, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Jerusalem branch, stressed that the Environmental Protection Ministry is not in favor of approving the plans, adding that technological alternatives were only presented partially and that additional location options were not well explained, according to SPNI.

Additional comments against the plans came from Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who told committee members that the largest array of biodiversity in Israel is concentrated in the Shfela region, and that the area will not be able to withstand drilling.

The day before the meeting, the Environmental Protection Ministry slammed the plans as environmentally destructive, declaring “there is no need to implement the project.”

Stressing that oil has not been derived from shale with this technology on a commercial scale anywhere in the world, ministry officials expressed fears that the project would cause the region irreversible damage.

In response to the ministry’s claims that day, IEI representatives said that the ministry failed “to employ professional consultants that fully understand the geology, hydrology and physics of the technology and the resource,” citing several errors made in the opinion.

Answering further claims from the ministry that the company did not provide sufficient information in its environmental impact assessment, IEI explained that the ministry had insisted that the firm submit an assessment only addressing the potential location of the pilot project, rather than other environmental issues.

Reviewing the arguments of the environmental groups once again on Tuesday, IEI CEO Relik Shafir criticized their claims.

Shafir cited comments from Yakov Livshitz of the Water Authority’s Hydrological Service, which urge the Environmental Protection Ministry to reevaluate their assessment due to a lack of geological knowledge and a misinterpretation of soil and water pollution risks associated with the project.

“The comments of Adam Teva V’Din and of the others do not relate to the pilot or to commercial production, but to something they invented themselves,” Shafir said.

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