Gas and Petroleum drilling in Israel's Deep Waters

Lessons from the Mexican Gulf Tragedy

by Ruth Shwartz, SPNI Energy and Infrastructure Coordinator 

 April 2010 will be remembered in American History as the month when the Deepwater Horizon, BP's deepwater oil drilling rig, exploded 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion exposed the Gulf of Mexico and its entire coastline to a slew of carcinogenic chemicals, devastated the fishing industry, killed defenseless wildlife, and caused severe harm to the environment. BP (British Petroleum) developed a fund of 20 billion dollars to cover the economic and environmental ramifications, showing that the financial implications of the explosion stand among the most costly disasters in American history.

Following the disaster, an investigational committee was established by the Federal government which made the following recommendations: reform in the national drilling authority to reduce conflicts of interest, implementing stricter standards for safety and security inspections in accordance with the NEPA law, increasing scientific research, and more.

As of today, drilling is being carried out in Israel, and it is mostly experimental drilling in deep water (most of the drilling is done in Israel's exclusive economic zone and not in territorial waters). Most of the drilling is geared towards the layers of natural gas, while some drilling is directed towards the layers that petroleum can be found. As a rule, the drilling industry in deep waters is a very complex industry which creates all sorts of dangers, where a particularly troublesome challenge posed is in the reckless extraction of petroleum. Despite the extensive and expanding drilling activities in Israel on one hand, and despite the various risks that are reflected in drilling activities on the other hand, the existing regulation to properly deal with potential issues lags far behind.

The Petroleum Law was enacted in 1952 with a clear bias towards entrepreneurs and at a time where environmental considerations were very low on the scale, if at all considered during the decision making process. As of today, regulation does not include demands for environmental or safety considerations. The decision making process is done in a manner that is barely transparent to the public. The Ministry of Environmental Protection as a regulator is responsible for environmental issues and yet is almost not involved in the process.

Currently the Water and Energy Ministry is working on a environmental code which will crystallize guidelines in the domain, among them environmental and safety issues. Although there is no doubt that this is a nice start, we believe that in the short term, adherence is necessary to the following principles:

  • A decision making process will allow the Ministry of Environmental Protection more significant input.
  •  A decision making process will be open in an effective manner, allowing transparency and public criticism.
  •  Obligation to investigate environmental implications, i.e. producing an Environmental Impact Statement
  •  Obligation to survey possible procedural dangers
  •  Promoting a National Preparedness Plan in case of disaster, including a sufficient budget.

There is no doubt that the probability of a disaster like that in the Gulf of Mexico is relatively low, yet the magnitude of the damage from a disaster of such proportions is. In order to reach an optimum situation that will reflect the advantages and benefit from this natural resource, while enabling the protection of public resources and minimize damage to the environment, Israel must realize that it is entering a new age in the search for petroleum and gas in the sea and must adapt itself accordingly, whether through regulation or in terms of other complementary vehicles.