Energy at Sea

Author name: Dr. Eran Brokovich

Using natural gas while protecting the marine ecosystem

קרדיט_ גיא לביאן photography: Guy Lavian

Senior coordinator, Environment Division, Natural Resources Administration, Ministry of Energy
The State of Israel has been blessed with many natural resources that improve the quality of our lives and the country’s economy. The Ministry of Energy is entrusted with setting and implementing policies to utilize these resources, from minerals such as sand and phosphates, to the natural gas reserves discovered in the Mediterranean Sea during the last decade which will replace more polluting energy sources.
As an integral part of the need to use these resources, the Ministry of Energy has advocated for protection of the environment. Thus, the Petroleum Unit of the Natural Resources Administration (NRA) has goals not only for locating new natural resources and ensuring efficient usage of existing ones, but also for protecting the environment and limiting the damage done to nature.
To this end, in 2011 an environmental division was founded under the NRA. This division is responsible for drafting environmental regulations and writing environmental guidelines for the various operators, all under the Petroleum Act and its regulations, the lease deeds and the guidelines of the Petroleum Commissioner, and in close cooperation with the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The ongoing tasks dealing with the marine environment, including conservation, research, and monitoring the sea, has led to the understanding that we must expand the professional staff of the NRA. Therefore, since 2017, the NRA has employed a marine ecologist.

In 2012, the peak of interest in the natural gas reserves discovered in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the NRA decided to take a step back, to halt the process of issuing exploration licenses, and to rethink the entire licensing issue. As part of this process, the NRA decided to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the offshore oil and natural gas sector. The assessment is a tool for determining the policy of the Ministry of Energy, and its main aim was to find a balance between the need to develop this newly discovered important natural resource and the need to protect the environment.

As part of the assessment led by the NRA, the first of its kind in Israel, initial background surveys were conducted in the exclusive economic zone, the first marine habitats map was published, a comprehensive review of the potential environmental impacts was made, and baseline recommendations for the development activities were established which influenced governmental policy in the economic waters. For example, it was decided that all the exclusive economic zone would be defined as frontier areas new to development and therefore operators would be required to carry out background surveys and prepare environmental documents before any activities were performed at sea. It was also determined that, during the process of approving the survey and until it is updated, there would be no exploration within seven kilometers of the coast in order to protect the sensitive habitats in the shallow waters. In the open sea habitats, spatial and temporal limits were set to prevent harming the dolphin feeding areas in the Achziv Canyon and disturbing the breeding and egg-laying seasons of sea turtles.

The activity of the environment division is focused on the exclusive economic zone where the Ministry of Energy is the main regulator. The Ministry of Energy has an extensive and close cooperation with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and so they co-write the environmental guidelines for operators. Since impacting the environment is possible at every stage of the exploration and production activities, Israeli regulation accompanies all stages throughout the process (Figure 1). In the initial stages of approving and issuing exploration licenses, the Ministry of Energy is the only regulator. As the project progresses and an exploration drilling request is applied for, there is increased involvement of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (primarily the Marine Environment Protection Division). Along with the common requirements and guidelines for background surveys and preparation of environmental documents, there are a number of permits granted exclusively and directly by the Ministry of Environmental Protection: a permit to use toxins aboard drilling ships, a permit to discharge liquids into the sea, and approval of an oil spill contingency plan.

If and when natural gas is discovered and is declared a discovery (meaning there exist commercial quantities of usable gas in the reservoir), the license holder requests a production lease for the field and prepares a plan for the development and extraction of the resource. During development, the Ministry of Energy regulates the various stages of engineering and safety, and, together with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, oversees the environmental aspects. The guidelines for the background surveys and the environmental documents required at the various stages of site development (i.e. drilling, deploying sub-sea infrastructure, and constructing the production facility), are formulated and provided to operators by both the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The development of the field as well as the construction and operation of the production facility require the same permits as the exploration drilling. In addition to these permits, the production facility also requires an air emission permit, which it receives from the Air Quality and Climate Change Division of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The environmental documents required for exploration drilling, or for the development plan, are similar to environmental impact assessments. The guidelines for these documents and the background surveys are available on the Ministry of Energy’s website, their main points being:
A description of the existing status of the marine environment to which the application relates; alternatives to the proposed location and technologies, and justification for preferring the proposed option; a description of the proposed activities and their potential environmental impact; and, finally, measures to prevent or minimize those impacts. The documents deal with the possible effects of various discharges to the sea, emissions to the air, noise and light hazards, and the risk of oil spills throughout the life of the project.

Supervision of the operator is carried out by the Ministry of Environmental Protection under the various permits it issues, as well as by the Ministry of Energy under the Petroleum Act, its regulations, the lease deed and the guidelines of the Petroleum Commissioner. In some cases, when the production facility is located in territorial waters, the construction permits are granted by the planning authorities under the Planning and Building Act.

In addition to the oversight, and to comply with the SEA recommendations, the Ministry of Energy funds a significant portion of the national monitoring program budget, and supports additional studies to close the existing large knowledge gaps regarding the Mediterranean Sea, as raised by the SEA.
Dr. Eran Brokovich
Senior coordinator, Environment Division, Natural Resources Administration, Ministry of Energy

Figure 1. Distribution of responsibilities, including granting approvals, of the Ministries of Energy and Environmental Protection. In the center are the various stages of the natural gas sector activities, from the exploration phase to the production, to the closing the site. Shown along both sides of the stages are the various involvements of the Ministries of Energy and Environmental Protection. Some activities are under the exclusive responsibility of one of the offices while others are under joint responsibility.


Translated by Daphna Shapiro Goldberg