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ISRAEL: A controversial shale project and energy security

February 6, 2011 | 10:44 am

The suspension of Egyptian gas supply to Israel has lighted a fire under the feet of Israeli officials, businessmen and shareholders trying to assess how events in Egypt will affect Israel's energy economy.

Initial assessments that it is in Egypt's interests to keep the lucrative gas deals with Israel may prove right when the dust settles. But the shake-up in Egypt is a wake-up call for Israel, too.

Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau urged hastened development of the Tamar gas field Sunday. Meanwhile, Israel can increase quantities from its southern reserve and may have to compensate for the loss of Egyptian gas by using more coal and oil-based fuels to produce electricity.

Israel was hoping to move away from such dirtier energy sources for various reasons, including a pledge to reduce greenhouse emissions. Recently the government approved a national plan to develop technologies to reduce global use of oil in transportation. Global dependence on oil and the countries that produce it is bad for both the environment and economic stability, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

But industries and economies still rely on fossil fuels. Increasing costs and depleting reserves are driving new technologies that, well, scrape the bottom of the barrel to produce energy.

And surprise (OK, maybe not to geologists) -- Israel is sitting on a potential fortune.

 

Israel has tremendous deposits of oil shale, an underground layer of rock impregnated with kerogen, a  petroleum precursor, which ultimately becomes oil when heated. Nature takes millions of years to do it but science can speed up the process

In 2008, Israel licensed a vast shale deposit at the foot of the Judean Hills to Israel Energy Initiatives, which is currently conducting a pilot project to produce 500 barrels of oil. If testing proves technically and economically feasible, the company believes Israel will have a source of high-grade oil worth several decades of energy security.

Shale can be extracted by open-pit mining and transported to a heating facility, leaving a massive trail of destruction. There are plenty of horror stories around the world. The Israeli project would use the in-situ technique brought to them by Harold Vinegar, former chief scientist of Shell, who joined IEI. In a nutshell, the process involves prolonged heating of the rock through boreholes until the residual layer liquefies. It is then siphoned out and refined. It uses less surface than mining but is very energy-intensive, which raises other concerns.

The 238,000 dunam deposit licensed to IEI overlaps with the natural expanse of the Adullam region, a scenic national park with national heritage and archaeological sites being submitted to UNESCO as a world heritage candidate. The communities in the area, 3 kilometers away, are afraid of what the drilling will do to the environment. Concerns evolved into the Save Adullam campaign, which seeks to raise public awareness and block the project until transparency can be legally guaranteed to safeguard national environmental interests, not only the company's financial ones.

 "This is a humongous project, and a very energy-intensive one" said Rachel Jacobson, a concerned resident and art therapist whose sabbatical morphed into spokesmanship for the campaign. "The company insists it will have no environmental impact, but you look at the other developments and say 'No way this is true'," she said. Jacobson noted the company was granted an exclusive permit within Israel's antiquated oil law that allowed developers liberties with resources but "didn't take into account environment, public safety and other issues on today's agenda." 

The region was transformed in recent years from failing farmlands to a thriving local economy with hike and bike trails, boutique wineries, and bed and breakfasts, with help from the government. "Now they want to tear it up and turn it into an oil field. Who does such a thing?" Jacobson asked.

It's "not a NIMBY thing," she stressed. "This is everyone's backyard; water and air aren't local." The campaigners would love for Israel to be energy-independent and reject what they call "scare tactics" about the project being a component of national security. Jacobson asked: How safe is Israel going to be if its air or water are poisoned?

"We're on the residents' side. We drink the same water," responded On Levy, a spokesman for IEI. The company has done extensive -- and expensive -- testing that shows no adverse affect on the environment or resources, he said. The precious groundwater is protected by a thick layer of impenetrable rock, the geology being very different from other ventures overseas, which Levy said he assumes spooked some residents. Not only will water not be exploited, he said, the process will also produce a considerable amount as a byproduct, making the project a double boon for the country. IEI is committed to the environment and to Israel, Levy reiterated, pledging complete transparency. 

Where there's big money, there are big names too. IEI is largely owned by Genie Oil and Gas. Lord Jacob Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch recently bought into Genie. Jacobson worries that  "American billionaires have jumped on this because they know there are no stoppers in Israel."

Yes, there are foreign investors and players, said Levy, but they are people who have Israel's interests at heart, he said.

Even the campaigners will agree with him on some points while remaining suspicious of others.

 "Let's face it,"  Jacobson said. "Dick Cheney doesn't exactly have a reliable track record in protecting the environment." Cheney is on Genie's strategic advisory board.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Video: Shale pilot facility in Adullam park. Credit: YouTube

 

 

  

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