My Word: Tapping into gas

Excuse me for mentioning it, but the discovery of natural gas fields off Israel’s coast has been accompanied by a bad smell.

June 27, 2013 21:36
PROTESTERS AGAINST the government’s natural gas policy gather outside the Prime Minister’s Office

Natural gas protests 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Excuse me for mentioning it, but the discovery of natural gas fields off Israel’s coast has been accompanied by a bad smell.

This week, the gas situation turned into a particularly hot problem. And frankly, it stinks.

The government – in what environmentalists, social protesters and political opponents, among others, described as a “snatch” – agreed to export 40 percent of the natural gas and keep 60% for domestic use.

The decision was taken amid dissent from both the industrialists involved in the gas discovery (who had lobbied hard for a greater percentage for export at premium rates) and those who said the gas is a natural national asset and needs to benefit first and foremost the home market.

The gas giants threatened to turn off the faucet and leave the gas untapped under the sea. The environmentalists warned they would turn up the heat.

A picture of a banner at a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office caught my eye in particular with its slogan: “GAS or GEZI!” But when the meaning of the motto sank in I became less enthusiastic about the copywriting. However inflamed passions are, to threaten to spark Turkish-style rioting strikes me as a form of violence in its own way.

The gas is being exploited, in the most negative sense of the word, by an extraordinarily broad range of interested people and interests.

Its discovery touches on a number of burning socioeconomic issues, among them the ever-growing disparity between the “tycoons” and what is still called the middle class more out of habit than anything else.

Whose children and grandchildren should benefit from the find, those of the entrepreneurs willing to take the risk and invest in the offshore explorations or the ordinary citizens of the country? There is even, to a certain extent, a question of who paid for it, given the number of big businessmen who have been discovered to have gambled (and lost) with money that ultimately came from our saving accounts and pension funds.

Free-market principles have been shown to come with a high price tag, and you don’t have to be a member of the radical Left to realize who has been paying the price in most cases.

Part of the suspicion surrounding the deal stems from the lack of transparency. Just as the smell has to be added to the natural gas to alert to leaks and serve as a warning, so too have the potential dangers of the government’s plans remained hidden. Protocols of the Zemach Committee – an interministerial panel led by Energy and Water Ministry director-general Shaul Zemach – were not available to public scrutiny (i.e. possible criticism) for several months.

“The State of Israel has received a gift from nature – gas in vast quantities,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following the cabinet meeting. “Thanks to the decision we made today, every Israeli citizen will enjoy this gift. We will lower the cost of living in the electricity sector via the gas that will flow into the Israeli economy, and we will invest in the public welfare thanks to the profits that will go into the state coffers from gas exports.”

Then, in his own thinly veiled warning, he added: “Any delay in implementing this decision will endanger the state’s ability to realize the benefits of our gas resources. Gas must not stay in the ground under layers of bureaucracy and populism.”

The gas is a gift. Yet it reminds me of the good fortune of a lottery winner.

What others believe to be a dream come true can turn into a living nightmare for the person suddenly subjected to intense pressure from family, friends and strangers.

There is a temptation to throw caution to the winds and large sums of money around; or, conversely, to turn into a spendthrift, unable to enjoy the freedom that comes with financial security.

“I think that the ability to withstand the populist wave, against people who do not understand how to run an economy, who can easily destroy economies, this ability is within this government,” said Netanyahu. “We are united and we have considerable strength and determination to enact this important move.”

But the gas has also united an unusual band of political rivals.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich spearheaded the campaign to submit a petition to the High Court of Justice against the government’s decision the day after Netanyahu spoke so firmly. “If populism is helping 99% of the public and not giving NIS 350 billion gifts to tycoons, continue being populists,” she told the Labor faction meeting.

Her petition was joined by Economic Affairs Committee chairman MK Avishay Braverman (Labor), MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud Beytenu) as well as a number of NGOs dealing with governance and social policy.

Current Environment Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnua) opposed the government’s decision as did the former minister Gilad Erdan, one of Netanyahu’s closest allies in the past.

The fight now is focusing on who has the right to take a decision on such a strategic subject with so many long-term ramifications: the government or the Knesset.

All agree that the effects of the country’s gas policy will be felt in a large number of spheres; beyond the socioeconomic implications, there could be an impact on Israel’s diplomatic ties and also its security.

Becoming an exporter of gas will likely affect Israel’s standing in the Mediterranean basin and beyond, while being independent of the need to import gas via the volatile Egyptian pipeline is another obvious benefit.

The peculiar nature of gas has another catch – no one is quite sure what quantities are involved, hence the social protesters and government both tend to talk in terms of percentages rather than absolute figures.

Part of the problem is the obvious distrust of both “sides.”

The government fears the populist element in the opposition. The public might not be taking to the streets this year – the demonstration outside the Knesset where the “Gas or Gezi” banner was raised was attended by about 15 people, according to Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem – yet to talk about the silent majority would be incorrect: Much of the “99%” are active on the social media and are aware – and concerned – about what the “1%” is doing, at whose expense, and what cost. The Hebrew words “hon, shilton,” referring to the close relationship between capital and government, have become a common catchphrase, usually voiced with the same negative tone as the words “tycoon” and “politikai” (politician).

It was no surprise that the Movement for Quality Government and Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) were among those that blasted the decision being taken around the cabinet table, behind closed doors, rather than in the Knesset, where a larger number of representatives, including from the opposition, could participate in open discussions.

Natural assets belong to the country, not to whichever government happens to be in power when they are uncovered or their potential can be realized.

The government is understandably in a hurry to make the most of the gas because of the geo-political opportunities and the immediate economic benefits, but such decisions cannot be taken in a rush, swept up with the powerful flow of the gas.

Without knowing how much gas the country itself will need in the coming years, deciding how much to export is hazardous.

Going against the flow, I’d still prefer that more investment were made in harnessing a truly infinite and natural asset with which Israel is blessed – solar energy. Gas is considered a good source of clean energy; nonetheless even the most unsophisticated consumer knows that handling it requires caution.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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