In September 2014 an Israeli government planning committee delivered a remarkable decision: it rejected a pilot project for non-conventional oil exploration in the country’s Adulam region located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a pastoral rural area rich in biblical archeology with a strong eco-tourism sector.
The company that had submitted the request, Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), had planned to use an untested technology called “In Situ Thermal Recovery” to produce oil by heating shale rock to temperatures as high as 950 degrees Fahrenheit. This releases organic matter known as kerogen, a compound that eventually transforms organic matter into oil and gas.
The committee’s decision was a major victory for Israel’s environmentalists, and a fatal blow for the IEI. IEI had argued that since the project would operate underground, it would leave a minimal ecological footprint, and water resources would not be endangered because of an impermeable rock layer protecting them. However, the committee remained unconvinced, and its final decision determined that the technology posed a critical environmental risk.
The real winners here were the local activists whose health, environment and communities had come under direct threat by the proposed IEI project. Their media-savvy campaign presence has compared the conflict to the biblical confrontation between David and Goliath; the project location was in the same area where the diminutive David emerged victorious over the giant Goliath.
The local community’s victory was an empowering experience for other communities, as well, demonstrating that corporations intent on extracting natural resources in disregard of the impacts on the environment and health of local communities can be stopped by a well organized group of dedicated citizens.
But while the celebrations for the Adulam victory were at their height, another government planning committee, this time in the northern part of Israel, approved the request of IEI’s sister corporation, Afek Oil & Gas, for exploratory drilling in the Golan Heights.
While Afek is officially promoting the project as conventional drilling, Afek officials have admitted that the project does entail non-conventional drilling. Moreover, community activists are convinced that the company intends to use fracking during the explorations, and that fracking has probably already taken place.
The presence of chemicals stored at the drilling sites (fracking requires extensive use of chemicals in order to clean, widen, and keep open cracks in the rock, releasing the hydrocarbons) coupled with the refusal of government officials and Afek to release information on these chemicals and the company’s declared need to extend the drilling in order to reach what it claims is a rich layer of hydrocarbons, substantiate these claims by activists.
This has raised an alarm among local communities determined to ward off what they are convinced will be an ecological and health disaster. They are particularly concerned over contamination of the area’s water resources: the Golan Heights is marked by extreme water sensitivity with high quality aquifers as well as biodiversity-rich streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main surface drinking water source and only fresh water lake. Another source of worry beyond the impact of Afek’s project on water quality is the massive quantities of water needed for fracking.
Moreover, local communities do not want oil pipelines running through or near their communities, nor do they wish for oil and gas trucks traversing their narrow, winding, country roads, already congested by much-wanted tourists.
Then there is the threat of earthquakes: the oil drilling license area is located on the rim of the great Syria-African Rift and is crossed by geologic faults and cracks. These faults and cracks provide potential pathways for pollutants. Coupled with normally occurring tectonic activity, this increases the potential for great intensification of earthquakes due to drilling and fracking activities, as experienced in Alberta, Canada, and in Oklahoma and Texas in the United States.
And all this leads to climate change. Environmentalists vehemently oppose these projects since they increase Israel’s dependence on fossil fuels and deflect from government policy on decreasing Israel’s greenhouse gas emissions.
IEI and Afek Oil & Gas are subsidiaries of Genie Oil & Gas Ltd. (GOGAS), a New Jersey corporation with headquarters in Newark that operates in Israel through these two subsidiaries.
Genie Oil & Gas is a subsidiary of Genie Energy Ltd., which was spun off in 2001 by IDT, the telecommunications company founded by Howard Jonas in 1990. Genie Energy Ltd. is a holding company for energy related businesses including Genie Oil & Gas, which is developing oil and shales reserves in Colorado, Israel and Mongolia.
In Israel, IEI and Afek have built their PR campaigns on making the country energy-independent, hyping what they define as Israel’s huge reserves of oil shale and gleefully declaring that extracting oil and gas from these reserves could transform the country into a world energy power. But as pointed by Afek’s CEO himself, while approximately 530 wells have been drilled since the country’s establishment in 1948, commercial production of fossil fuels remains elusive.
Although the company reports finding evidence of hydrocarbons and/or gas in all the sites drilled so far (some in the form of liquid oil), the presence of water and the low permeability in the hydrocarbon and gas carrying strata made it difficult to extract viable amounts of liquid oil and gas under current permit restrictions. Reviewing its data, Afek has already announced that it does not plan to resume actual drilling before the Q4 2016, Q1 2017.
The burning question is: do people have the right to say no to these corporations that come into their communities creating these environmental and health risks? In Israel, communities are proving that they do have the right to decide. As documented in Josh Fox’s epic documentary, Gaslands, fracking is tearing apart communities across the United States, contaminating well water, polluting the air, and making people sick.
The oil and gas companies retort that there is no evidence to support the claims of the anti-fracking forces. But the Israeli public isn’t buying their excuses and is fighting tooth and nail to prevent these companies from operating in their communities. Communities together with environmental organizations are fending off attempts by US companies to copy and paste the US paradigm of non-conventional fossil fuel drilling in Israel.
So investors beware: this current venture for oil and gas exploration in the Golan Heights will in all likelihood go the way of its sister corporation, IEI, in losing its battle for unconventional drilling in Israel.