Israel partially freezes UAE oil pipeline deal over environmental concerns

Israel partially freezes UAE oil pipeline deal over environmental concerns

Head of marine protection unit accuses Israeli state-owned company of ‘ignoring ministry instructions,’ ‘negligence,’ and ‘impertinence’ in downplaying risks

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry said Sunday that it was delaying implementation of a proposed oil transport deal with the United Arab Emirates, freezing a project that has angered environmentalists.

The agreement, which followed the UAE and Israel establishing diplomatic ties last year, would see Gulf oil brought to the Red Sea port of Eilat by tanker, then moved by pipeline through mainland Israel to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, from where it would be shipped to Europe.

The ministry informed Israel’s state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company on Sunday that it rejected an environmental risk survey that was carried out in connection with the deal. The ministry also said it would delay work to assess the EAPC’s readiness to receive greater numbers of Gulf oil tankers at Eilat. This, said the ministry, is until the government has discussed and reached a decision on the controversial memorandum of understanding the company signed with the UAE in October.

It remains unclear which, if any, government ministries, knew about the deal before it was signed. The contents have not been made public.

The agreement is opposed by the former and current environmental protection ministers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the local coastal authorities, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations, scores of scientists and Eilat residents.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said Sunday that she was determined the government would hold a strategic discussion about the deal, which would likely not contribute anything to the Israeli economy while threatening the coral reefs of the Gulf of Eilat and the resort town’s tourism.

Earlier this month, the EAPC responded to a High Court petition filed by environmental groups against the deal by producing a risk survey that said the threat of environmental damage was “negligible.”

In a letter to EAPC’s director general Itzik Levy and an official at the company’s Eilat operation, Avishai Arma, Rani Amir, head of the ministry’s Marine Environmental Protection Unit, said the ministry would “not approve the risk survey in any way.”

At best, Amir said, it did not meet instructions given by the ministry in January 2021, while it more likely reflected “negligence and perhaps even disregard for our instructions.” He accused the Israeli state company of “impertinence” in using the survey in its response to the High Court petition.

“Under instruction from the Environmental Protection Ministry Tamar Zandberg, we will delay continuing to assess your preparedness for an increase in activity at the Eilat terminal until the government discusses and reaches a decision about you.”

Channel 13 reported last week that the UAE was seriously concerned about reports that the government was planning to review the deal.

The EAPC’s risk survey said that “severe damage leading to full loss of the entire content of a tanker or external damage to a tanker and significant loss of content” would only occur once every 366,300 years.

The likelihood of leakage in a pipe carrying fuel to a ship was determined to be so low it would only occur once every 1,111 years, the report went on.

“An insignificant spill,” which was not quantified, was likely to take place once every 24 years. If such a spill happened, said the EAPC, the leak would be pooled and “no environmental damage or marine pollution would be caused at all.”

The coral reefs in the Gulf of Eilat are proving uniquely resilient in the world to global warming and scientists hope that they can be cloned and used to help rehabilitate reefs elsewhere that are collapsing due to global warming.

The wide opposition is due not only to the fear for the coral, but also to the EAPC’s shoddy environmental record and numerous past leaks — it was responsible, seven years ago, for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.