Arguing that oil works on the Golan Heights may harm the public interest and pose a threat to environmental and water resources, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel filed its objections on Tuesday to a recent drilling permit extension.
In early November, the Northern District Committee granted initial approval for a two-year extension on the Afek Oil and Gas company’s exploratory drilling permit, through which the firm is able to explore for conventional oil at up to 10 sites in a 39,500-hectare (97,606-acre) zone south of Katzrin. Following the committee’s November approval to lengthen the existing one-year permit by two more years, members of the public had 60 days to file their objections.
Although the company received a threeyear drilling license from the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry for its project in April 2013, the necessary permit issued by the Northern District Committee in July 2014 only covered a one-year period, which began in February 2015.
In its objections document, SPNI demanded that both the exploratory drilling extension, as well as the company’s accompanying production tests, be rejected until further environmental examinations have taken place. Deciding on such a matter, the organization argued, requires striking a balance between the country’s desire to find oil and its duty to protect public resources.
“The committee can no longer close its eyes to the widespread implications of a petroleum industry in the Golan,” the objections said. “In light of this, the committee cannot make a decision regarding the extension of its approval to conduct exploratory drilling and authorize carrying out product tests in the license area, before the environmental and overall effects are presented, of a petroleum industry in the Golan.”
SPNI demanded that the committee require the company to produce an updated environmental survey, exploring the extent of the potential damage that drilling could cause to open spaces on the Golan Heights. Such a document would look at how the work could impact agriculture, groundwater resources, the Sea of Galilee, soil and geology, as well as greenhouse gas emission quantities and potential earthquake risks, the organization said.
“The committee must deny the request to conduct production tests and hold an additional hearing about them, after an updated environmental document is presented, examining the expected environmental impacts and dangers from carrying out production tests, including strategies for coping with, preventing and reducing the expected and possible hazards,” the objections added.
Although Afek received its original oneyear permit from the Northern District Committee in July 2014, the company only began drilling operations in February 2015, due to six months of delays stemming from environmental opposition.
In addition to protests outside the company’s drilling sites led by Greenpeace, SPNI and other groups, a High Court of Justice petition that Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) filed in September temporarily halted the work. Nonetheless, the High Court dismissed the petition in December.
Since February, Afek Oil and Gas has completed drilling at four sites and is in the process of moving on to a fifth. While the company said its findings have confirmed the presence of liquid petroleum on the Golan Heights, the extent to which such oil may be commercially viable remains to be determined.
In response to SPNI’s objections, a statement from Afek stressed that the company “operates strictly in accordance with the law and directives of the district committee and the authorities.”
“All company operations, including production tests, received at the end of a long and rigorous examination all the required approvals,” the statement said. “So far, we have completed four successful exploratory drillings, and we have proven that it is possible to carry out explorations without any damage to the environment and without any violation to the permit.”
Due to the fact that the results of the drilling thus far have confirmed early assessments that there is, in fact, liquid petroleum on the Golan Heights, the company stressed the importance of continuing with the exploration. The firm meanwhile accused SPNI of “recycling old arguments” that had already been raised in the committee and at the High Court of Justice.
“The State of Israel found that it was necessary to examine whether there is oil in the Golan Heights, and granted Afek with the mandate to evaluate this,” the statement continued. “Requesting an extension of the committee’s approval is needed in order to complete the mapping program and to perform well tests, in order to examine whether for the first time Israel has a significant commercial oil reservoir.”
In May, Afek finished drilling at its first well, Ness-5, located just northwest of the Avnei Eitan and Nov moshavim and south of Kibbutz Natur and the town of Katzrin.
About two months later, work was concluded at Ness-3, near the Bnei Yehuda industrial area.
At the end of August, drilling began on a third site, Ness-6, located near the entrance of Moshav Kanaf, just southeast of Gamla. Upon completing work at Ness-6, operations began in November at Ness-12, located near Moshav Kanaf. Drilling works have already concluded at this fourth site, where the company is awaiting the results of the electrical drilling logs.
Soon, the work teams will finish up at Ness-12 and move on to a fifth site, Ness- 2, near Kibbutz Metzer, the company said.