Drilling in the Golan Heights

What do Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, and Israel's former housing minister Effie Eitam have in common? All three men sit on the board of Afek Oil and Gas LTD., a New Jersey based company drilling for oil in Israel's Golan Heights. In New York City stockrooms, Afek's representatives have claimed oil reserves in the Golan could provide upwards of a billion barrels of commercial oil, but in Israel the company's official statements say no oil has been found in the area. These opposing reports are no accident.  A series of controversial planning laws passed by Minister Uzi Landau in 2012 exclude the "exploratory" stage of oil drilling from many of Israel's planning laws. As long as Afek remains in the exploratory stage of its oil extraction plan, the company is not required to conduct environmental impact reports. These reports are the public's only way of knowing the true effect drilling in the area could have on the environment. Afek, a virtually untested company, has been given free rein in the Golan, and the government seems unwilling to impose environmental regulations on the project thus far. The results could be catastrophic, not only for people in the region, but for the rest of Israel as well.

Introduction

 In February 2016, residents of the Golan Heights crowded into a large room to bring their concerns before the Northern Regional Planning Committee. The topic of discussion was Afek's plan to drill for oil in the Golan. Complaints brought before the committee included noise pollution, worries about water contamination, and the dangerous effect drilling could have on an area that is already prone to earthquakes. Afek faced a community that was equal parts confused, angry, and scared. Yet little has been done, before the forum was held or after, to alleviate concerns felt by residents. Even less has been done to alert the rest of Israel to the detrimental effect drilling could have on the country as a whole.

There are three major reasons SPNI believes the Golan is not the right area for industrial oil exploration: agriculture, tourism, and water. Afek's large oil rigs, cranes, and construction pose a threat to the Golan's beautiful trails and streams, which draw visitors from all over the world every year. Water from the Kinneret is used by farmers to irrigate farmland and keep the Golan's flourishing wine industry afloat. Most importantly, the Kinneret serves as Israel's major water reservoir. While Israel is not pumping water for residential use from the reservoir at the moment, the freshwater lake supplies Jordan with water. 

Will there be fracking in the Golan?

Residents and environmentalists fear the kind of oil found in the region may be nonconventional oil, which requires hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract bubbles of oil from rock formations. Fracking is the process of sending large amounts of pressurized water horizontally through the earth to shatter rock and release oil. The water is often mixed with hazardous chemicals, which could leak into water sources and pose a danger to public health. In other countries, especially the United States, fracking has become a highly contentious issue, due in part to the high number of chemicals found in water supplies near oil wells. Afek has refused to release a list of chemicals the company plans on using in drilling, a lack of transparency SPNI has been working to reverse. 

Geographical Concerns

The Golan Heights is an extremely steep area, and even the smallest chemical leak from one of Afek's proposed commercial oil wells could seep into numerous streams and wadis in a short period of time. Chemical spills spread through the surrounding environment quickly, making rehabilitation of the affected areas nearly impossible. A painful reminder of the detrimental effects of spills still lingers from the large oil spill that occurred in the Negev last year. Another issue is flow-back water, which is the extremely salty mixture of water, sand, and hazardous chemicals pumped through rock formations at high speeds in order to access pools of oil. That water mixture comes back out of the ground, along with the oil it helped access, and must be disposed of properly. Improper disposal of flow-back water is what led to multiple poisonings of humans and animals in the U.S., and also caused the famous "faucet water caught on fire" episodes we now know to associate with fracking. Neither Afek nor Israel's ministry of environment has a plan for disposing of this mixture. For now, Afek says the plan is to load the flow-back water onto trucks and drive it to the Negev, where it can be disposed of in a toxic dump. But anyone who has visited the Golan knows how difficult it is to maneuver a regular sized car through the region's twisty mountain roads. To think that large trucks will be able to transport highly toxic waste water from North to South without an accident is foolish. SPNI has been working with Golan residents to demand a realistic plan for disposing of flow-back water, if drilling continues to occur.

Israelis and Palestinians currently use 20% more water every year than is naturally replenished. Many believe the next war in the region will not be over oil or bombs, but over water. Drilling in the area not only endangers Israel's limited water supplies, but also exacerbates tensions in the area with Syria and Jordan, which depend on the same fresh water sources. 

Making a Stand

In 2013, SPNI got wind of potential oil exploration in the Golan Heights and began assessing the risks oil drilling in the Golan could pose to a region that is both an agricultural hub and a highly contentious political zone. Among the chief concerns was the fact that Afek, a subsidiary of Genie Energy LTD, lacked a comprehensive and realistic plan for mitigating effects of drilling and fracking on the surrounding community and the environment. In this small country, local concerns are national concerns, and a chemical or oil spill in the Golan could have rapid and long-lasting repercussions for the rest of the country.

SPNI challenged the first permit Afek received from the Israeli government, which allowed the company to bypass planning laws and procedures during the exploratory phase of drilling. In October 2014, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction against drilling in the Golan, but drilling continued after the injunction was lifted. SPNI also tried to influence the creation of new legislation that would require companies to assess the environmental dangers of oil exploration and drilling before breaking ground on a new project. Ultimately, these initiatives failed to hold Afek to higher standards of environmental and humanitarian responsibility. Throughout the past two years, SPNI has worked with water specialists, lawyers, and experts in oil technology to arm the public with information about the effect drilling might have on the area. 

The Campaign Continues

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(last updated May 2016)