Yacimovich leads petition to force vote on gas

Opposition head leads MKs in High Court petition to force Knesset to vote on natural gas export policy.

June 25, 2013 00:50
Tamar natural gas rig.

Tamar natural gas rig 370. (photo credit: Albatross)

Just one day after the government approved a natural gas export policy, an opposition force from across the political spectrum, led by Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday morning, demanding that the decision on gas exports be made instead within the Knesset.

Proposed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu together with Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer, the export policy called for maintaining 540 billion cubic meters of gas within the country’s domestic reserves, thereby restricting exports to 40 percent of the country’s current reserves, rather than the original 53% ceiling suggested.

Sunday’s approved proposal was a revision of the recommendations of the Zemach Committee, an interministerial committee led by Energy and Water Ministry director-general Shaul Zemach and tasked with advising the government on a suitable export policy.

Even with the upgraded percentages suggested for domestic allocation, environmentalists have been up in arms, arguing that the quantity is insufficient for the country’s energy, transportation and petrochemical industry needs. The developers of Israel’s eastern Mediterranean reservoirs, on the other hand, have argued that the swift implementation of a stable export policy is crucial to both the harvesting of the currently found gas as well as for encouraging future exploration.

Although gas from the 282-b. cu.m. Tamar basin is already flowing, working on developing the adjacent 535-b. cu.m. Leviathan reservoir cannot begin without first solidifying an export policy, the companies have explained.

Arguing that it is the public’s right for a decision on the fate of its natural gas reserves to be made within the confines of the Knesset, however, Yacimovich filed the High Court petition on Monday morning, with MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud Beytenu), MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism).

Gafni, as the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, is currently preparing for the second and third readings of a bill that will establish a specific fund for state gas royalties.

Other signatories on the petition included the Legal Clinic for Corporate Social Responsibility at the Academic Center for Law and Business of Ramat Gan, as well as several NGOs: the Israel Energy Forum, Israel Yekara Lanu, and the Organization for Sustainable Economics.

The petition is being served against the government, the prime minister, the energy and water minister, the Knesset and many of the companies exploring in the eastern Mediterranean – including Noble Energy, Avner Oil Exploration, Delek Drilling, Dor Gas Explorations, Isramco and Ratio Oil Exploration, among others.

In the petition, the signatories first request a conditional order to freeze any government action that has already occurred on the export subject, which would also include a demand for the state to explain the basis of its argument in more detail. If they are able to receive this conditional order, then there will be a second battle during which the court will make its final decision on the issue.

The petitioners argue that only the Knesset has the power to make fateful decisions on the gas issue. The argument essentially is that since the decisions will impact virtually every sector of Israeli society, multiple generations and everyone’s fundamental economic and social liberties, the Knesset must decide all issues.

In legal jargon, the petitioners also put forth the argument that the issue is a fundamental one of “first impression,” meaning it has never been dealt with before and, on that basis also, must be addressed and regulated by the Knesset as the preeminent branch of government in Israel, and the one which most directly represents the state’s citizens.

Next, the petition attempts to cite portions of a legal opinion by Deputy Attorney-General Avi Licht on the issue in support of its argument.

It cites Licht’s statements also calling the issue one of “first impression” and that there are doubts regarding whether any previous Knesset legislation, such as Section 33 of the Oil Law of 1952, addressed the issue, as proof that Licht mostly agrees with the petitioners’ position.

However, the petition also cites Licht’s final conclusion: that while it would be “desirable” for the entire Knesset to take up the issue, there is no legal violation if the issue is decided solely by a government decision, since the decision can, if necessary, be based on Section 33 of the Oil Law, and that the need for speed in moving the gas exploration projects forward provides additional justification for a streamlined approval process.

The petition criticizes Licht’s conclusion as being inconsistent with his overall analysis of the issue, and as artificially bending toward the government’s desired conclusion despite the overall weight of the applicable legal principles.

Economic Affairs Committee chairman Braverman specifically blasted Licht’s nod to the need for speed as a central reason for avoiding Knesset involvement, as he said he had “already told the prime minister in writing on Saturday night that the Economic Affairs Committee will hold discussion in August, if necessary, in order to help quicken the legislative process, but the prime minister ignored it and decided to skip the Knesset.”

The Attorney-General’s Office itself refused to comment on the issue, beyond noting that it had sent its legal opinion to the government for review.

The High Court has ordered the state to respond to the petition within 15 days, according to a spokeswoman for Yacimovich.

“I am not in the habit, as a Knesset member, of turning to the High Court of Justice to compel the government or the Knesset to do something; however, on this issue, there was no other choice to maintain the honor of the Knesset and protect the public debate,” Rivlin posted on his Facebook page after submitting the petition.

Involving the public is critical in this latest gas decision, as it will likely have a significant impact on the economic and social strength of Israelis in the coming decades, he explained.

“From now on any topic relating to or influencing or having any implications on this issue, certainly like the topic of gas export, must be required to pass through the Knesset,” Rivlin explained. “My personal stance on the issue of gas export distribution is not relevant, but the procedure here is the important matter.”

In response to the petition, MK Ophir Akunis (Likud-Beytenu), who is close to the prime minister, said that the decision of Knesset members to turn to the High Court does not strengthen the Knesset, but rather weakens it.

“The government decision is proportionate and balanced,” Akunis said. “The role of government is to govern and make decisions, and it manages the state according to the law.”

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.

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