Israel's environment minister pushes to reverse UAE oil pipeline deal

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Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel wrote on Tuesday to the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, calling on him to cancel the oil transport deal recently signed by the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company, along with a company owned by businessmen from the UAE and Israel. Gamliel warned of the environmental implications of transporting the petrol through Israel and the increased danger of attacks on vessels and storage facilities due to the security situation.

Six months ago, the pipeline company announced the signing of a deal expected to significantly increase the volume of oil transported between Eilat and Ashkelon, as well as the number of oil tankers arriving at Israeli ports. The object of the deal is to enable the transport of UAE oil to the Mediterranean via the company’s pipeline, which begins at Eilat and ends at Ashkelon.

Oil tankers are already arriving at Eilat pursuant to the deal, each with a capacity of hundreds of thousands of tons of oil. Estimates are that the number of tankers arriving in Israel will increase annually from the current six to over 50.

None of the government ministries, including the Ministries of Environmental Protection and of Energy, was involved in devising the deal, nor was it presented to them. Gamliel has written the NSC chief several times, requesting a meeting on the subject, as [she claims] this deal falls within his purview at the PM’s Office. Gamliel claims that such a meeting was scheduled several times – but repeatedly canceled.

The Environmental Protection Ministry argues that the deal should be canceled due to the many risks to marine ecological systems in case of malfunctions or hostile actions. Gamliel noted in her letter that during the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas, a rocket fired from Gaza directly hit a large fuel container in Ashkelon. The storage facility is owned by the Petrol and Energy Infrastructures company, located not far from the Eilat-Ashkelon’s pipeline storage compound.

Gamliel says that the damage caused several months ago from the oil spill in the Mediterranean will be miniscule compared to that of a direct hit on the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline oil terminals, or the oil tankers docked there.

According to reports by professionals at the ministry, the company’s Eilat terminal is located in the most sensitive part of the city’s famed coral reef. Due to the structure of Eilat Bay and the relatively strong currents and winds, any leak will cause rapid contamination of coral reefs at points along the coastline.

In addition, professionals at the ministry noted that neither the ministry nor the pipeline company have the means to block a significant oil leak. Some of the equipment used by relevant actors is outdated. In addition, the pipeline’s facilities were constructed in the 1970s and there are concerns of malfunctions in the pipeline segments near the coast. As for the rest of the land-based pipeline connecting Eilat (on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean) with Ashkelon (on the Mediterranean), the ministry noted that recent steps have been undertaken to improve the safety of this infrastructure, but not all have been completed.

Oil tanker arrivals to Israel have decreased in recent years, as the country consumes fewer heavy fuels in industry and power plants. According to the ministry, the pipeline company therefore claimed that the increased number of tanker arrivals due to the new deal would merely restore the former status quo. But the ministry counters this argument saying that for Eilat this marks a significant increase and would involve additional environmental risks.

A month ago, several environmental organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice against the pipeline company’s oil deal. The state is scheduled to submit a preliminary response to the petition within two weeks.

The PMO responded: “As early as last March, the NSC sent Minister Gamliel a letter in which she was informed that the NSC does not deal with this matter. This publication, as well as the additional letter on the same topic, are puzzling.”

In the NSC’s letter [cited by the PM’s Office], Gamliel was told that the person in charge of handling the oil deal is Deputy Director of the PM’s Office, Lior Farber, and that the NSC will address diplomatic and security aspects, should such arise. Earlier this year the director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry wrote directly to the PM’s Office requesting a meeting in which the deal would be presented, but none such took place.