Shale Oil or Solar in the Negev?

Dear Chevra,

We at The Shalom Center have received some troubling information from Israel on plans to mine the Negev for shale oil -- one of the most water-intensive and polluting fuels on the planet (aside from the impact of still more fuel oil on global scorching).

There follow reports from Bustan, an organization that has for years been working with the Bedouin of the Negev. Their report also compares the shale-oil project to the slow development of solar power in Israel. Below you will also see Email addresses for Rebecca Manski and Devorah Brous, leaders of Bustan.

Ther focusn of The Shalom Center's "Beyond Oil" project is ending the addiction of American society to over-use of oil, and curbingn the power of the Drug Lords of Big Oil. We hope our readers in Israel or with influence in Israel will look intyo this question.

Shalom, Arthur

(Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center)

In the last month and a half, the government-owned company A.F.S.K. Industries has been negotiating with the Ministry of Infrastructure, and Senior Deputy Director General Eli Ronen in particular, to seek government permission and funding to build an oil shale power plant in the Negev Desert, in Mishor Rotem.

In a recent meeting, Ronen told the developers: "The ministry will promote with its blessings the initiative that will allow the production of oil." 1

Israeli promotion of one of the most water-intensive and polluting fuels on the planet could have implications globally. If this technology has the potential to catch hold outside the Israeli context (as it might - given Shell Oil's announcement of new shale oil extraction technology only a few months before A.F.S.K.'s revelation) we could see the emergence of an even more frightening scenario resulting from intensive water and air pollution.

Replacing one shortage with another even more dire deficit, could lead to the commodification of water and air and eventually water wars.

Bustan is calling a meeting of environmental NGOs to discuss the issue in a week's time. Together, we aim to draft a joint statement on the issue. --

Rebecca Manski
Bustan Communications>

Op/Ed in Jerusalem Post
By Rebecca Manski, 28 March 06

This week the National Infrastructure Ministry is considering new shale oil extraction technology that gives prospectors around the world permission to drool. Investors have traditionally associated shale oil with huge economic losses since the 1970s, when attempts to cheaply tap massive deposits of shale oil worldwide failed.

But for the moment, given the emergence of new technology and another spike in the cost of conventional oil, exploiting Israel's massive shale oil reserves has suddenly become comparatively economical.

Oil shale is a general term applied to a group of fine black to dark brown shales rich enough in bituminous material to yield petroleum upon distillation.

Last Tuesday, the developers of the shale oil extraction technology, represented by former energy minister Moshe Shahal, met with the ministry's director-general, Eli Ronen, to discuss a proposal to build a $700-million shale oil power plant in Mishor Rotem, near Dimona.

FAR FROM drooling, the rest of us - especially the unfortunate residents of Dimona, or those considering a hike in the Negev - might be more inclined to feel nauseous.

In addition to erosion, water pollution and carcinogenic by-products, shale oil extraction is said to produce four times more greenhouse gas than conventional oil production. In Estonia, the only country in the world that relies on shale oil for electricity, "About 97% of air pollution, 86% of total waste and 23% of water pollution... come from the power industry," according to Anto Raukus, the editor of the journal Oil Shale.

Furthermore, shale oil processing generally requires immense amounts of water, as illustrated by the Estonian case, where "91%... of the water consumed in Estonia was used in the power industry" in 2002.

Now let's mull over the Israeli context for a moment. According to the JNF, Israel is over-consuming its water resources by 25 percent. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the cumulative water deficit has led to the qualitative deterioration of potable aquifers into brackish or polluted waters. The reality is, we don't have the slightest drop to spare.

EXISTING INDUSTRIES in Mishor Rotem may already be emitting cancer-causing radiation and carcinogens into the vicinity of Dimona. The situation is so extreme that the southern planning committee recently turned down plans by one company to develop yet another phosphate mine.

With cancer rates in the Negev even higher than skyrocketing rates in the rest of the country, according to a preliminary study, surrounding communities cannot afford even one more polluting industry.

At the very least, perhaps the thousands of jobs promised by the proposed shale-oil plant will uplift the oft-mentioned Negev poor? Most recently, profits resulting from the expansion of Intel at Kiryat Gat failed to trickle down to Negev communities at the bottom of the economic scale, i.e. Ethiopians and Bedouin.

However, we can be sure that various government industries will reap a hefty profit. In addition to plans to build a shale oil plant, another industry which likely stands to benefit from shale oil extraction is the cat-litter and industrial absorption manufacturers.

The fact is that, while the Infrastructure Ministry owns several oil businesses, it lacks a single renewable energy company, lending the impression that the government has more of an interest in oil revenues than in fulfilling its self-stated goals to produce at least 2% of electricity from renewable resources by 2007.

To be fair, the solar company Solel has also received government approval for a project to build the largest solar power plant in the world. And CEO Avi Brenmiller makes it clear that "there is a real will in the government to build this solar project," the first in Israel.

But while Solel has been waiting several years for the Infrastructure Ministry to finish the paperwork, both its project and those for shale development are expected to begin construction at the same time - in 2007.

IN THE meantime, the large population of Beduin citizens living without electricity in the sun-soaked Negev reminds many of the failure to realize Israel's potential in the realm of solar power.

According to the Foreign Ministry, "an estimated 10 square kilometers of the Negev desert receive an annual average of solar energy equal to all of the electricity generated by the Israel Electric Corporation."

Israeli scientists were the first to develop solar applications. We can still become the world leader in reducing dependence on polluting energy. Why not start with the "unrecognized villages" throughout the Negev, where Israeli citizens often live right under power lines, suffering resultant health impacts while barred from connection to the grid?

We in Bustan have been working for years to highlight Israel's sustainable energy potential through the application of solar technology in "off-the-grid" villages such as Dreijatt. The government's solarization of the newly recognized Negev Palestinian Arab village of Dreijatt indicates that work to promote sustainable technologies in the Negev has begun to catch hold. Time and again, issues of war and peace have sent prospects for renewable energy to the bottom of the national agenda. Vital environmental concerns - such as the cancer crisis in the Negev - clearly have immense repercussions for all citizens and are worthy of attention in any context.

Indeed, what does it mean to argue over Jewish rights to the entirety of Eretz Israel if we are poisoning ourselves within the state's current boundaries? Let us not make the mistake of dredging up oil to pollute the light of day - instead of pledging that solar will emerge from the shade.

* Rebecca Manski, the writer, is communications director of BUSTAN, a partnership of Jewish and Arab eco-builders, architects, academics and farmers promoting social and environmental justice in Israel.