After receiving the “black award” at a green award ceremony held by Israel’s top
environmental organizations two weeks ago, Israel Energy Initiatives says that
criticisms of its oil shale drilling project were inaccurate, and that it is
adhering to all relevant environmental protocol.
On March 22, a series of
Green Globe awards were distributed by Israel’s umbrella organization for
environmental groups – Life and Environment – to the organizations and people a
team of judges had chosen as the best and worst contributors to the environment
in the past year. The “black award” was given to the oil shale project in the
Adullam region of Israel’s Judea Coastal Plain – a project of Israel Energy
Initiatives (IEI), chaired by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.
were around 10 options and [the judges] selected this as one of the most
potentially hazardous to environmental health and nature these days in Israel,”
Naor Yerushalmi, executive director of Life and Environment, told The Jerusalem
just before the awards.
“This would be another regular environment
campaign, but the twist here is that one of the [backers] is Michael Steinhardt,
a real Zionist, a real lover of Israel, a supporter of the
A week prior to the ceremony, Yerushalmi sent a letter to
Steinhardt about the dangers of oil shale drilling, which was co-signed by Amit
Bracha, executive director of Israel Union for Environmental Defense, and Kosha
Pakman, executive director and CEO of SPNI.
The letter itself was
actually drafted by an IUED attorney, Keren Halperin, who is the director of the
organization’s environment and community project.
While the group never
received an official response from Steinhardt or the company, the Post
to connect with both Steinhardt and Relik Shafir, CEO of IEI, who stood by the
company’s environmental practices.
Before that evening’s ceremony – which
Shafir attended and spoke at – the environmental groups present approached IEI
with a chance to cancel their “prize” if the company would make an urban plan
and environmental impact statement for the pilot stage, but IEI did not accept
this agreement, according to Halperin.
Shafir said that the company did
not agree because the environmental organizations were asking that, before
continuing with the pilot program, it would move to a “full plan” – which he
said could mean waiting between seven to 10 years before being able to start the
The groups have a petition filed with the High Court asking
that the project be forced to undergo this “full” urban planning process, and
Shafir is confident the case will go in his favor.
Meanwhile, the letter
sent to Steinhardt addressed how IEI is currently drilling onsite to examine the
region’s oil shale layers and their suitability for oil production, as well as
the company’s intentions to conduct a pilot experimental drilling project to
produce oil from these layers, which would “examine the financial and
environmental implications of commercial drilling.”
One of the first
issues associated with the drilling that the letter brought up was that
permission for the oil exploration was granted by the National Infrastructures
Ministry, without the Environmental Protection Ministry’s
That ministry’s input was requested only “after the fact,
following the granting of the license,” the letter asserts.
responded that “this is a misleading representation of the situation... Our
license – as well as any other license ever granted under the Petroleum Law –
was granted without the input of the Environment Ministry,” he
“However, the license is conditioned on obtaining all necessary
approvals and permits and compliance with all laws and regulations, specifically
with respect to environmental protection agencies and planning and zoning laws.
The license gives the licensee the right to explore for oil – but any actions
taken in the course of exercising these rights must be approved by all relevant
“The Ministry of the Environment served a prominent and
active role in the process and has actively taken part in the choices of the
sites,” he added, noting that other environmental institutions like the Society
for the Protection of Nature and the Nature and Parks Authority were also
But the signers continue to maintain that this is simply not
“They weren’t involved until about half a year ago, and, still, it
was only about compliance,” Halperin said.
The letter next contended that
oil shale production – which involves “heating subterranean layers to high
temperatures for an extended time in order to convert solids into liquids and
into extractable in situ gas” – is only “an experimental process” implemented in
a few places throughout the world.
To this, Shafir argued that the
process was actually invented in Sweden in 1940, where oil production persisted
until 1964. Meanwhile, according to Shafir, seven programs have been conducted
since then by Royal Dutch Shell in Colorado and in Alberta, Canada, where
“pilots were carefully monitored for environmental impact and were issued the
Halperin responded that none of those pilot projects
were performed in preparation for a commercial scale project, and they used much
different technology, in a place that is not geologically related to, say,
Colorado or Sweden.
“The whole area is one of the most sensitive places
in Israel,” she said.
The next point brought up in the letter was “the
potential for significant, severe and in some cases irreversible environmental
damage” caused by oil shale drilling.
Shafir criticized this claim for
lacking supporting evidence, and said that “no adverse effects were found.” He
explained that major obstacles that exist in America’s oil shale development –
such as in Colorado, where an aquifer runs directly through the oil shale layer
– do not exist where IEI is performing drilling, in the Shfela basin of the
“IEI is pursuing a methodical and cautious approach and
is planning to do a small-scale, short-term pilot – whose sole purpose is to
prove the technology prior to any further development,” Shafir
The letter’s signers also expressed concerns that the drilling
would disturb the ecological beauty of the Adullam region, noting that the area
is “part of a unique ‘ecological corridor’ and cultural landscape designated for
UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage site.”
Shafir, in turn, responded
that the company has “no intention of pursuing commercial production” in this
precise location, and that “the project footprint on land is minimal and will
not harm the special value of the area.”
“We can’t see how those things
can go together, and we know the Environment Ministry is as worried as we are,”
Halperin objected, adding that if a commercial project is pursued elsewhere, the
geological conditions could be different altogether.
The area where the
commercial drilling would occur, Shafir then explained, has the “same geological
characteristics” because it would be in the same huge, uniform basin as the
pilot project – just in an area with a deeper surface.
A final worry
expressed in the letter was that the use of “yet another, ultimately [depleting]
source of polluting fossil fuel is being advanced under the banner of ‘Energy
Independence for Israel.’” Shafir responded that such allegations can be
addressed only after a successful pilot program has been conducted, but noted
that “the oil shale reserves of Shfela hold more oil than Israel consumes in
“IEI’s technology may be able to develop this resource while
protecting the environment and this unique and beautiful area,” he said. “The
tremendous benefit to the State of Israel could not possibly be
But to the environmental groups, oil is still oil – a
harmful fossil fuel, according to Halperin.
“No matter what happens to
this specific area, the result of this process is going to be something close to
oil, a very polluting fossil energy,” she said. “Israel, like the rest of the
world, is trying to transition over to other sources.”
that the writers of the letter meet with the scientists involved in the project
to discuss matters further, to which Halperin responded that they’ve already
“met them dozens of times” and have invested time “learning their
Steinhardt told the Post
that he “stands by the company’s
response” and had no further comment beyond what IEI had provided.