While the large discoveries of natural gas are an “economic blessing” that can contribute enormously to Israel’s green growth path, the country must be careful with the quantities it chooses to export, experts agreed on Thursday.

“There’s no question that this is an economic blessing,” said Environmental Protection Ministry director-general Alona Sheafer-Karo.

“It’s going to reduce pollution, [and] it’s going to give us money, but together with that it raises very essential questions.”

Sheafer-Karo was speaking at a panel called “A Greener Israel – A Distant Dream?” at the 2012 Presidential Conference in Jerusalem on Thursday. While exporting some quantities of gas is certainly important, more of the gas should be left at home for domestic use rather than be sold to others. This way, the country can avoid a situation like the one afflicting Argentina, which over-committed its gas export quantities and now has to import, despite its large gas reserves, Sheafer-Karo explained.

“We want to produce clean transportation here at home,” she said.

The decisions that a committee led by Energy and Water Ministry director-general Shaul Zemach on exactly how much gas to export will be absolutely critical to Israel’s environmental and economic future, according to Sheafer-Karo.

“It’s going to be a fateful decision,” she added.

Dita Bronicki, cofounder of renewable energy provider Ormat Industries, agreed with the director- general’s assessment, stressing that “we were fortunate and we found gas close to us.”

“This is going to be a terrible mistake if we are going to base ourselves on export of gas rather than using it for ourselves and our own transportation needs,” Bronicki said.

“We are a very small country with big needs,” agreed Efi Stenzler, the chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.

Lawson Freeman, commercial vice president of Eastern Mediterranean at Noble Energy, agreed that security of supply is crucial and that selling to the domestic market is always preferable, as the infrastructure required is cheaper.

However, he argued that “people will only come in and develop gas fields if you can sell the gas,” and this requires leaving a decent quantity of gas available for export. Freeman also said he had “every confidence” the economic issues associated with natural gas development in Israel would be dealt with quite responsibly in Israel.

Maintaining enough gas within Israel’s bounds is an “issue of the future generation,” and changing the mindset to prefer the long term over now, added Prof. Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University.

An economy, he stressed, cannot be based on natural resources alone – it must be based on technological development and knowhow.

Along these lines, Israelis must internalize that a productive, stable economy will be one that is integrated with environmental c o n c e r n s , Sheafer-Karo argued.

“This is a perception that is already passé – but in Israel for some reason we haven’t gotten rid of it – that there’s a dichotomy between the economy and the environment,” she said.

“We cannot have a stable society which is a safe investment to investors without talking about the environment.”

In Israel, such a small country, there are some 1,200 development sites where pollution levels are so bad that the developers will need to invest billions of shekels in purifying these lands, Sheafer- Karo said. Unless Israel continues to pass and enforce environmental regulations, it will be in a very bad place both environmentally and economically, she explained.

Stenzler agreed that Israel – and the world – “needs a new vision,” so that the ever-increasing population on the globe can get out of a situation of environmental emergency.

“Is a green world just a dream?” Stenzler asked. “We need to erase the question marks; the future is already here. However, we are struggling for the continuation of the existence of the human race. This is the biggest challenge that we have.”

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