Residents of the southern Golan Heights will take to their land in protest on Tuesday against an oil exploration project slated to begin soon.
The community members will demonstrate next week near some of the 16 drilling test sites expected to crop up in their midst – the first of which they say will be a site on the banks of the El Al Stream.
Expressing concerns about environmental and public health impacts, as well as the effect on the regions’ tourism industry, the residents are calling for resistance against the drilling project led by the company Afek Oil and Gas.
“What’s been the hallmark of this whole process is that the public here have not been involved,” Hadar Sela of Kibbutz Kfar Haruv, a 30-year resident of the Golan Heights and a Manchester native, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Following a favorable recommendation from the Petroleum Council in February 2013, Afek received its exploratory drilling license in April 2013. The license, according to the company, grants Afek exclusive rights to carry out oil and gas exploration activities for three years – with an option to extend to seven years – in a 395-sq.km. plot located south of Katzrin.
If a discovery is proven, Afek is entitled to the long-term right of commercial production in the license area, the company said.
The company filed its plans with the Northern District Committee for Planning and Building in November 2013, and published the necessary newspaper notifications on February 28. A public objection period will continue until April 28, after which the company will learn whether they are to receive final committee approval.
Afek Oil is a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Genie Energy, Ltd., whose Israel Holdings chairman is Brig.- Gen. (res.) Effie Eitam.
Other prominent shareholders of Genie Energy include CEO and chairman Howard Jonas, Lord Jacob Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch.
Former vice president Dick Cheney serves as an advisory member to the board.
Genie Energy is also the mother company of Israel Energy Initiatives, the firm that holds a license for an in-situ oil shale project in the Shfela basin.
IEI intends to extract an estimate 40 billion barrels of oil, in an innovative manner that the company says will bring no harm to the environment.
Residents of that region, on the other hand, argue otherwise.
In the meantime, the Golan Heights residents have launched an online petition titled “Opposition to Oil Drilling on the Golan Heights,” which received 776 signatures by Thursday evening. A Facebook event page promoting Tuesday’s protest accrued about 200 affirmative RSVPs by the same time.
Although Sela acknowledged that the company and the Northern District Committee operated in a completely legal manner, she said that little communication has occurred with the local residents.
“Technically they did what they are obliged to do,” Sela said, however, “people on the ground had absolutely no idea what was going on.”
For Gali Fux, a Kibbutz Kfar Haruv resident who is organizing the Tuesday protest, newspaper notifications about the program were inadequate.
“They have not talked to us at all,” Fux told the Post.
The residents have many concerns about the plans, such as the potential impact on the ecology and tourism of the region, Sela explained.
“That’s the Golan – the Golan is all about clean air and beautiful landscapes,” she said.
Those with agricultural businesses have also expressed concerned, and many people fear for the purity of the region’s aquifer, according to Sela.
In addition, many of the drilling points are located in very close proximity to residential communities, both she and Fux stressed.
“There is nothing that can guarantee us that our lives won’t change completely,” Fux said.
Due to the Golan Heights location, Sela also expressed fears that oil exploration there will inspire members of the Boycott Divest Sanction movement to bring their attentions to the region’s activities, harming local business.
Also, due to the tumultuous political situation on the other side of the Syrian border, Sela said that the residents are concerned about potential terror attacks to the infrastructure.
In response to the residents’ campaign, Afek Oil CEO Geoffrey Rochwarger said in a statement that his company is “proud to lead the national project of oil exploration in the Golan.”
“All along the way we worked with transparency with all the relevant bodies and the local population, and will continue to do so,” he added.
Over the past year, the company has published notifications about the project on television and in both the national and local press, “in an effort to bring the project to public consciousness,” Rochwarger said.
“All our activities are carried out in accordance with and subject to the laws of the State of Israel and the license granted to us in April 2013,” Rochwarger said. “As part of the company’s environmental commitments we have conducted comprehensive work detailing all the measures taken to maintain a green Golan and the quality of life of the residents.”
Afek is operating in full coordination with the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Water Authority, the Golan Heights Regional Council, the Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Energy, Water and National Infrastructure Ministry, according to Rochwarger.
The drilling work will be accompanied by a government surveillance team, he said.
An evaluation of the plans drafted by the Water Authority in November 2013 indicated that the authority “had no objections to implementing the drilling” and that the region’s aquifer only crosses the northernmost points of the drilling plans. In order to truly understand the hydrology of the targeted drilling layers of three of the drilling sites that remain in question, however, the Water Authority mandated that geophysical logs be created there.
A similar letter of approval from the Environmental Protection Ministry indicated in January that no risk to the aquifer was expected.
Regarding air pollution, the ministry expressed concern regarding only one of the drilling sites, as it is 210 meters from a restaurant – which is currently closed.
As far as noise goes, the ministry said that a mobile acoustic wall would provide an ideal solution to blocking sounds from sites located near residences.
Also in response to the residents’ campaign, Golan Heights Regional Council spokeswoman Dalia Amos said on Thursday that the council has been working with all the parties involved in an “open, professional and transparent manner.”
“We, as a regional system, see this project as one of great national importance, which may lead the State of Israel to energy independence, and position the Golan as a strategic energy asset,” Amos said.
Stressing that oil drilling in many countries is carried out near tourism sites, Amos maintained that the Golan Heights Regional Council is a leader of green programming and sees no contradiction in promoting these plans, which have received approval from environmental bodies.
“We are happy that the Israeli government approved the exploration for oil on the Golan and hope that it will indeed be found,” she said.