Solar energy, not shale pollution

Plans to extract shale oil in the Negev are misguided. Why not focus on renewable energy instead?

This week the National Infrastructure Ministry is considering new shale oil extraction technology that gives prospectors around the world permission to drool. Investors have traditionally associated shale oil with huge economic losses since the 1970s, when attempts to cheaply tap massive deposits of shale oil worldwide failed. But for the moment, given the emergence of new technology and another spike in the cost of conventional oil, exploiting Israel's massive shale oil reserves has suddenly become comparatively economical. Oil shale is a general term applied to a group of fine black to dark brown shales rich enough in bituminous material to yield petroleum upon distillation. Last Tuesday, the developers of the shale oil extraction technology, represented by former energy minister Moshe Shahal, met with the ministry's director-general, Eli Ronen, to discuss a proposal to build a $700-million shale oil power plant in Mishor Rotem, near Dimona. FAR FROM drooling, the rest of us - especially the unfortunate residents of Dimona, or those considering a hike in the Negev - might be more inclined to feel nauseous. In addition to erosion, water pollution and carcinogenic by-products, shale oil extraction is said to produce four times more greenhouse gas than conventional oil production. In Estonia, the only country in the world that relies on shale oil for electricity, "About 97% of air pollution, 86% of total waste and 23% of water pollution... come from the power industry," according to Anto Raukus, the editor of the journal Oil Shale. Furthermore, shale oil processing generally requires immense amounts of water, as illustrated by the Estonian case, where "91%... of the water consumed in Estonia was used in the power industry" in 2002. Now let's mull over the Israeli context for a moment. According to the JNF, Israel is over-consuming its water resources by 25 percent. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the cumulative water deficit has led to the qualitative deterioration of potable aquifers into brackish or polluted waters. The reality is, we don't have the slightest drop to spare. EXISTING INDUSTRIES in Mishor Rotem may already be emitting cancer-causing radiation and carcinogens into the vicinity of Dimona. The situation is so extreme that the southern planning committee recently turned down plans by by one company to develop yet another phosphate mine. With cancer rates in the Negev over 65% higher than the rest of the country, according to the 2004 Ministry of Health Report, surrounding communities cannot afford even one more polluting industry. At the very least, perhaps the thousands of jobs promised by the proposed shale-oil plant will uplift the oft-mentioned Negev poor? Most recently, profits resulting from the expansion of Intel at Kiryat Gat failed to trickle down to Negev communities at the bottom of the economic scale, i.e. Ethiopians and Beduin. However, we can be sure that various government industries will reap a hefty profit. In addition to plans to build a shale oil plant, another industry which likely stands to benefit from shale oil extraction is the cat-litter and industrial absorption manufacturers. The fact that, while the Infrastructure Ministry owns several oil businesses, it lacks a single renewable energy company, lending the impression that the government has at least as much of an interest in oil revenues as in fulfilling its self-stated goals to produce at least 2% of electricity from renewable resources by 2007. To be fair, the solar company Solel has also received government approval for a project to build the largest solar power plant in the world. And CEO Avi Brenmiller makes it clear that "there is a real will in the government to build this solar project," the first in Israel. But while Solel has been waiting several years for the Infrastructure Ministry to finish the paperwork, both its project and those for shale development are expected to begin construction at the same time - in 2007. IN THE meantime, the large population of Beduin citizens living without electricity in the sun-soaked Negev reminds many of the failure to realize Israel's potential in the realm of solar power. According to the Foreign Ministry, "an estimated 10 square kilometers of the Negev desert receive an annual average of solar energy equal to all of the electricity generated by the Israel Electric Corporation." Israeli scientists were the first to develop solar applications. We can still become the world leader in reducing dependence on polluting energy. Why not start with the "unrecognized villages" throughout the Negev, where Israeli citizens often live right under power lines, suffering resultant health impacts while barred from connection to the grid? We in Bustan have been working for years to highlight Israel's sustainable energy potential through the application of solar technology in "off-the-grid" villages such as Dreijatt. The government's solarization of the newly recognized Negev Arab village of Dreijatt indicates that work to promote sustainable technologies in the Negev has begun to catch hold. Time and again, issues of war and peace have sent prospects for renewable energy to the bottom of the national agenda. Vital environmental concerns - such as the cancer crisis in the Negev - clearly have immense repercussions for all citizens and are worthy of attention in any context. Indeed, what does it mean to argue over Jewish rights to the entirety of Eretz Israel if we are poisoning ourselves within the state's current boundaries? Let us not make the mistake of dredging up oil to pollute the light of day - instead of pledging that solar will emerge from the shade. The writer is communications director of BUSTAN, a partnership of Jewish and Arab eco-builders, architects, academics and farmers promoting social and environmental justice in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.