The High Court of Justice on Monday evening issued an order for the temporary cessation in any Golan Heights oil drilling operations, to grant the state more time to respond to a petition from environmentalists and local residents.
The project in question, set to be conducted by Afek Oil and Gas, involves three years of exploration for conventional oil through 10 wells.
After receiving its exploratory drilling license for a 395 sq. km. plot south of Katzrin in April 2013, the project earned approval at the Northern District Committee for Planning and Building on July 24 this year.
On September 1, however, Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) and a group of Golan Heights residents submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, demanding the repeal of the exploratory drilling plans.
Afek Oil is a subsidiary of the New Jersey-based Genie Energy Ltd., which is also the parent company of Israel Energy Initiatives – the firm whose pilot project for Shfela basin oil shale drilling recently met rejection in the Jerusalem District Committee.
The permit issued by the Northern District Committee allows for exploratory drilling occurring in a gradual manner, and forbids any fracking or production of oil not in conventional, liquid form.
Only if it is found in commercial quantities, and is then deemed by the National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Ministry to be a “discovery,” could the company then submit a detailed plan for the committee’s approval regarding commercial drilling.
In the petition filed by Adam Teva V’Din and the group of residents, the complainants state that the oil in the region is likely tight oil and would require unconventional drilling procedures like fracking – potentially polluting the groundwater with harmful by-products and causing underground fluctuations.
Afek Oil has maintained that the oil in the region is just as likely conventional as tight, and would not necessarily require fracking for extraction.
On Monday, the High Court of Justice informed the parties that Afek Oil would have the remainder of that day to file its response, while the government would now have until October 6.
“In light of the claim of the petitioners that drilling activities have not yet begun, and to prevent changes in the existing situation, we are granting a temporary order as requested,” Monday’s court decision said.
The decision deemed that Afek would not be able to implement any work activities “that change the face of the land,” and that the temporary order would be valid “until another decision is issued.”
In response to this decision to temporarily stop work, Adam Teva V’Din praised the High Court’s judgment.
“We welcome the decision of the High Court that will stop this farce and ensure an in-depth discussion about the question of whether we can approve a project with a risk of disastrous consequences for the environment and our health,” said Adam Teva V’Din executive director Amit Bracha.
Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz joined Bracha in praising the cessation of work.
“I welcome the decision of the High Court,” Peretz said.
“We were the only ones who opposed in the Northern District Committee drilling in the Golan Heights, before doing any required tests to dismiss irreparable harm to groundwater, the drainage basin of the Kinneret and to nature.”
Adam Teva V’Din representatives and Golan Heights residents claimed that despite the court order to temporarily cease drilling activities, tractors were operating in the license area on Tuesday morning.
In response, Afek Oil said that this accusation was false, accusing Adam Teva V’Din of “systematically and irresponsibly disseminating” lies and slander.
“We received the decision on the temporary order yesterday evening, and immediately upon receiving it we instructed the contractor to stop and evacuate the site, which occurred this morning,” a statement from the company said. “The claim that we violated the High Court order is a lie and is defamatory.”
Afek Oil representatives stressed that plans for the project were approved by the Northern District Committee for Planning and Building, and that the company was preparing for the beginning of work and was keeping the local communities updated.
Just after Rosh Hashana, team members began to take measurements, and on Sunday started transferring equipment to the site – prior to receiving the temporary order to cease operations, the company said.
“The High Court agreed to grant the extension and in order to prevent changes in the existing situation, granted the temporary order only,” the company statement said.
Afek Oil emphasized that professional government bodies, including the Water Authority, Mekorot and others, examined and approved the drilling project in the Golan.
“The Afek company is proud to lead the national project for the exploration of oil in the Golan Heights and is confident that these efforts to prevent the exploration for a globally important resource will to be of no avail,” the statement from the company said.