Israeli companies search for oil in Judean Desert

Nature Authority fights two energy companies who want to drill in the midst of a nature reserve.

Judean Desert 224.88 (photo credit: Foreign Ministry)
Judean Desert 224.88
(photo credit: Foreign Ministry)
Two Israeli energy companies are convinced the best chance for finding oil in Israel lies at a site in the Judean Desert nature reserve and have stirred up a storm of controversy with their persistent requests to drill an exploratory hole. The companies, Ginko Oil Exploration and Delek Energy System, want to drill in an empty corner of the desert. However, the Nature and Parks Authority Science Committee and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) contend that even exploratory drilling will destroy the fragile ecosystems in the reserve. The two sides will go head to head on Tuesday in front of the Nature and Parks Authority general assembly, the Authority's highest body, which will decide whether to grant the companies' request. The situation, from an environmental perspective, has also been complicated by the fact that Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra has recommended the drilling plan, although on the condition the ecological damage was reversible. Ginko made headlines two years ago when it discovered a small amount of oil near the Dead Sea through Zuk Tamrur 3. This time around, Ginko director Rami Karmin believes Zuk Tamrur 4 in the reserve has the best chance to produce as much as 6.5 million barrels. But even he admits that drilling for oil is "a tricky business" and there are no guarantees. "We are talking about drilling in a spot that the Authority had already approved drilling there 10 years ago, and we requested that spot because we thought they'd approve it again. The district committee approved it two weeks ago and now we need the Authority's approval," he said. "We need [approximately] 1.25 acres out of 150,000 for two months so that we can drill an exploratory hole 2,000 meters down. We had an ecological company evaluate the area. There have also been other exploratory holes in the Dead Sea area and you can't even see them anymore," Karmin argued. According to Karmin, Zuk Tamrur 4 is the likeliest place in Israel to find oil because of its unique geological properties. "There is oil around the Dead Sea but the constant little earthquakes that occur because the Sea is on a fault line release the pressure before the oil can be driven to the surface. At this spot, there is a four-way closure and there is a good chance there is oil there," he said. However, SPNI argued Sunday in a position paper ahead of Tuesday's meeting that the relatively small predicted reservoir did not justify the massive ecological damage. Israel uses about 80 million barrels of oil per year, or 270,000 per day. 6.5 million barrels would meet Israel's needs for less than a month. Karmin contended that the amount of oil wasn't the point, its cost was. "Six-and-a-half million barrels is worth about $800 million. The government would be receiving about $400m. in fees and taxes - can we really afford to turn down that much money?" he demanded. The Authority's Science Committee, nevertheless, has submitted its assessment report to the general assembly and has counseled the body to prohibit the companies from drilling. The committee consists of, among others, two professors and two doctors, including the Environmental Protection Ministry's chief scientist Dr. Yishayahu Baror - who apparently disagrees with his minister. Rather than a deserted corner of the desert, the site actually sits in the middle of a very narrow corridor which serves as a natural transit area between the Judean Desert Reserve and the Negev reserve, the committee said. Disturbing the area would have a massive impact on plant and animal life in the whole area, they argued. Animal populations would be cut off from their main groups with no way to get back to the Negev, they said. The committee addressed both the potential damage from the initial drilling, but also the greater potential impact of striking oil. While an exploratory hole would inevitably cause some damage, if oil was found, much more damage would result, the committee wrote. A constant stream of tanker trucks and the new roads they would require would doubtless result in severe damage. Even putting up lights, as is usual for drilling sites, would adversely affect the delicate ecosystems. The inevitable accidents if oil were found would pollute the ground in the area as well, according to the report. The committee concluded by reminding the general assembly that it was precisely their job to protect nature in the face of such threats. Meanwhile, even if the committee voted against granting them permission on Tuesday, Karmin vowed to employ additional legal measures to get the permits.