Ezra fights the green fight with little sway and less money

Environment minister wages uphill battle to make pollution a priority.

By SHELLY PAZ, AMIR MIZROCH
September 27, 2007 21:35
4 minute read.
gideon ezra 298

gideon ezra 298 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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Eighteen months after taking over the Environmental Protection Ministry, Gideon Ezra says his office is starved for funds, he can't use the little money it does have and nobody in the cabinet listens to him. Apart from that, he's satisfied. Israel's "Al Gore" he is not, and even with the increase in the public's awareness of environmental issue, Ezra seems to be able to move little in a government obsessed with security issues and political survival. As former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and ex-public security minister, he supports Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's moves to release Palestinian security prisoners, but goes further and believes that letting former Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, now serving five consecutive life sentences, out of prison would better strengthen Fatah against Hamas and help prevent the Islamist group for taking control of the West Bank. "I am willing to give them [the Palestinians] anything that doesn't endanger my safety and prevents the murder of the next Jew, even if it means releasing Barghouti," Ezra told The Jerusalem Post in an interview earlier this week. Barghouti was sentenced for involvement in the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk during the second intifada. Ezra also thinks cutting the oil supply to the Gaza Strip, which the cabinet declared "hostile territory" on September 19, would be more effective than cutting its electricity flow. "Children can't die if the oil supply is cut by Israel," he said. And if the ambulances run out of fuel? "We can provide their ambulances with gas, but that's about it." Ezra wishes he could talk as tough with Finance Ministry officials or corporate polluters. The companies prefer paying fines rather than cutting emissions at their factories. Many laws go unenforced in this country, he laments, why would environmental rules be any different? His steely gaze has had little success in moving Treasury officials to fund environmental projects. And local authority heads shrug their shoulders and pass the buck to the Interior Ministry, which, according to the mayors, just won't give them the funds to clean up their environmental messes. Those projects that the ministry can fund are usually tied to matching mechanisms in which local authorities must put up half the amount. But in most cases local authorities, especially the cash-strapped ones, would rather pay their employees' back wages. Some of the communities with poor environmental records are Arab. Here, Ezra says, many green groups abandon him because being green in Israel these days means you're also "left wing," and left-wingers don't criticize Arabs. Still, Ezra's main concern is with his ministry's budget: NIS 150 million for 2008. In contrast, the defense budget for next year is projected to be NIS 50 billion. "I need to be right when I point out the dangers [of pollution and environmental damage] and for that I need to have the best experts on my side. To make a real change I need a strong legal department in my office that can investigate and press charges against criminals who pollute. I need to have the ability and the manpower to enforce the law," he said. He cites a clean air bill that failed to receive Knesset approval this year because it would have been impossible to enforce for lack of staff at the ministry. "I said this law needed 20 people, working full-time, to ensure its effectiveness," Ezra said, but he could not convince the Treasury to fund the positions. "More people die from air pollution in Tel Aviv each year than [the number of] road deaths nationwide," Ezra said, a reference to the Transportation Ministry's larger budget. Sometimes other considerations preventing Ezra from shutting down polluting factories. "There are two plants that work with ammonia in Sderot. I asked them to make sure this dangerous toxin is secured in the tanks, but the plants' owner ignored me, saying that due to the conditions in his city, he could not afford the extra expense. What am I to do, close down two plants that employ 500 people from Sderot?" he asked. Ezra said natural gas was the only viable solution to Israel's energy needs, even if it was more expensive than coal. His efforts to oppose National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's decision to establish a new coal power station in the South failed; the decision has green groups up in arms. "Solar energy is remarkably expensive. One kilowatt costs US$15 to produce, compared with only $3 for one kilowatt produced with coal... Under the circumstances I, personally, support natural gas-based electricity production, but we cannot count on the current sources for a long time and the supply might run out," Ezra said. Since Israel's electricity production capability is 10,500 megawatts, and 10,070 megawatts were used during peak days this summer, Ezra said he had no choice but to support the plan to establish coal-based power stations in Ashkelon and Hadera. "We have to guarantee that a collapse of the electricity system won't occur, and at the same time we're working to establish the first solar energy producing field in the Negev. I don't support nuclear energy, because of the toxic waste hazard it brings," he said.

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