Last week I visited friends in the sleepy northern coastal town of Atlit. People are friendly. Peaceful roads wind around leafy streets. Trains run close to the beach, and you hear the warning clang and the rumble as you go about your daily business. The beach is clean and quiet at this time of year. You can see a shadowy silhouette in the watery distance though; the Leviathan gas rig. You don’t pay it too much mind, it seems far enough away. The whole place has the charm of a small town in the 1960s. And the air – the air is fresh and sweet.
But we don’t know how the fresh the air is going to be in Atlit, or indeed in any of the northern coastal towns, once the Leviathan gas platform starts production tomorrow, Monday the 22nd. The rig lies only 10 kilometers – some six miles – offshore. The original plan was to situate it 125 km. offshore, but the government cites concerns over security with the rig at that distance from land.
Environmentalists have been warning that the rig’s proximity to the coast might subject whole communities, not to say marine and animal life, to irreparable damage from waves of toxic pollution when operations start.
Little has been reported about the possibility, but what little information is out there, is dire enough. From Haifa to Hertzliya, residents are talking about evacuating their homes in the event that the anticipated air pollution drifts through their home towns.
Eco-organizations such as Home Guardians and Zalul cite other concerns. It’s expected that during the initial stages of gas production, huge quantities of toxic emissions will be pumped directly into the atmosphere in not one, but two 8-hour waves over Israel’s northern coast. The estimated volume of airborne substances emitted over those hours could equal a more “acceptable” rate of pollution spread over 60 months.
“If it really does happen, I’ll pack the kids up and take a train to my parent’s house near Tel Aviv,” my friend told me confidently. She couldn’t imagine the panic and hysteria at the train station as hundreds of families try to escape at the same time, in the event of a catastrophe.
The Leviathan gas field is the largest discovered worldwide to date. It’s estimated to contain up to 605 billion cu.m. of gas, enough to supply homes for 65 years. Exports of gas from the Leviathan and Tamar gas reservoirs will begin in January 2020 to Egypt and Jordan. The deal is valued at $15 billion.
“A short time ago, I signed an approval for the export of natural gas from Israel to Egypt,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. “In doing so, Israel becomes – for the first time in its history – an energy exporter and an important partner in the regional energy market.
“The export of gas to Egypt, from the Leviathan and Tamar reservoirs, is the most significant economic cooperation between Israel and Egypt since the peace agreement was signed between the countries. This is a historic milestone for the State of Israel. The natural gas revolution makes us an energy superpower and will enable not only huge revenues for the country, but also a dramatic reduction in air pollution.”
Steinitz was referring to becoming independent of energy from coal, itself a heavily polluting industry.
The Environmental Protection Ministry has said that the company can emit up to 49 metric tonnes (54 US tons) of volatile organic compounds, excluding methane but including toxins such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide during the commissioning period, including 153 kilograms (337 pounds) of carcinogenic benzene.
What is holding back the flow of this information to the public? Newspapers have reported on the the Leviathan gas field, its potential for good and for harm too, but the public has received no warning about the potential deadly waves of toxins. Only residents, messaging each other on WhatsApp groups, gather up scraps of information and pass them around.
“Supposedly releasing a massive ton of Benzene from 6 a.m. tomorrow,” posts a man in a WhatsApp message. “Region highly at risk between Haifa and Hertzliya. I live in Haifa and my wife is pregnant. Taking no risks and coming to Tel Aviv tonight for the next few days.”
Is the lack of warning a government move to prevent panic? Or is the consideration not to delay the start of operations because of the big money involved? And what security concerns can top the potential dangers of exposing large populations to toxic gases over 16 hours? The scenario is as dire and dystopian as any science fiction movie. And it might happen this week.
Green Prophet will continue to report as events unfold. Let’s hope for the best.
Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP