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Israel-U.A.E. pipeline deal ‘invitation to disaster’ for globally important corals

  • Israel and the U.A.E are moving to extend oil operations using Israel’s “land bridge,” an alternative to the Suez Canal, following the signing of the Abraham Accords peace treaty.
  • Tanker traffic is set to increase in the northern Red Sea, with a tanker terminal close to Eilat’s coral reefs endangering species that are very resilient to high temperatures.
  • Scientists, environmentalists and politicians are campaigning for a reversal of the decision, citing the environmental track record of the state-run company in charge of the pipeline’s operations, fears of ecological damages and economic consequences for coral reef tourism.

Israel’s “energy gateway” between East and West looks set to take off thanks to a new oil transport deal struck with the U.A.E. But locals, NGOs, scientists and Israeli government ministries fear destructive repercussions for a globally important marine ecosystem at the hands of an oil logistics company with a deleterious environmental track record.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) operates a bi-directional oil pipeline running 254 kilometers (158 miles) between Eilat on the Red Sea and Ashkelon on the Mediterranean. It is an attractive alternative to the pricier Suez Canal route, but was hitherto used at only a fraction of its capacity due to an Arab trade boycott of Israel. The U.A.E. formally scrapped the boycott when it signed the Abraham Accords peace deal August 2020, normalizing relations and allowing for this first major step to fulfilling the EAPC pipeline’s capacity to act as a “land bridge” between Eastern and Western oil markets.

The last time Israel signed a peace agreement was with Jordan in 1994. One outcome of that deal was the Binational Red Sea Marine Peace Park, an initiative to protect marine ecology in the Gulf of Aqaba (known in Israel as the Gulf of Eilat) that brought Eilat’s heavily damaged coral reefs back from the brink. This time those same reefs are in the spotlight again as EAPC’s plan to increase use of an oil terminal just meters from them fuels fears of catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem.

“Such proximity between oil tankers and a nature reserve has no precedent anywhere on the planet,” a group of 131 international scientists wrote in a letter to the Israeli government, branding the move “an invitation to disaster.”

A tanker moves in to dock at the EAPC Eilat pipeline terminal December 2020. Image courtesy of NGO, Zalul.
Signage for the Coral Sea Reserve protected stands with an oil tanker docked at the EAPC pipeline terminal in Eilat behind it. Image courtesy of NGO, The Coast Patrol.

EAPC is partnering with Med-Red Land Bridge (MRLB), a joint venture between Abu Dhabi-based Petromal, international company Lubber Line, and Israel-based AF Entrepreneurship. The deal was described as a “historic milestone” by EAPC CEO Itzik Levy, and is one of the first public-private partnerships to come out of the Abraham Accords. It “is likely to increase the transferred quantities [of oil products] by tens of millions of tons per year,” EAPC said in a statement at the signing ceremony, as reported by Reuters.

Coral tenacity no match for oil pollution

The coral-encrusted pilings of EAPC’s 54-year-old pipeline terminal jetty stand in 30 meters (100 feet) of water a stone’s throw from the public beaches of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. Huge supertankers almost 300 meters long (nearly 1,000 feet) dock more and more frequently near the northern boundary of what Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority website calls “[t]he most beautiful marine reserve in the world — colourful gardens beneath the sea.”

Scuba divers prepare to dive near EAPC’s pipeline terminal at Eilat in 2017. Image courtesy of Eliran Ovadia.

The Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve is a protected area located within the peace park, and a jewel in the crown of the region’s natural reefs, which attracted a million tourists in 2019. But Eilat’s reefs are not just a pretty face. They harbor unexpectedly tenacious corals able to withstand temperature increases better than any others yet discovered on Earth, according to scientists.

Maoz Fine, lead researcher of this 2017 finding and head of a coral reef ecology laboratory at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, joined the fray against increasing tanker traffic earlier this year. He is a signatory to the scientists’ letter aiming to raise awareness of the unique importance of Red Sea corals on a global scale.

“Corals in the Gulf of Aqaba and the northern Red Sea are extremely resistant to rising water temperature, compared with corals anywhere else in the world,” Fine told Mongabay. The hope that they may be a key to the survival of coral ecosystems threatened with extinction by rising temperatures “rests on the necessity and ability to protect the Red Sea reefs from sources of local environmental stress and pollution such as oil spills,” Fine said.

Coral encrusted pilings at the EAPC Eilat oil pipeline terminal jetty in 2020. Image courtesy of Eliran Ovadia.

Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection described annual usage of the Eilat terminal at six tankers in recent years. The first crude carrier contracted under the new deal picked up from the Eilat terminal in April. “[W]e look forward to operating the line at full capacity in the very near future,” Malachi Alper, CEO of MRLB, said in a press release at the time.

The pipeline can transport 60 million tons of oil per year from Eilat to Ashkelon and 30 million back the other way, EAPC’s website says. But it remains unclear how much supertanker traffic to the Eilat terminal may increase once the pipeline is running at capacity. The scientists’ letter put the figure at up to 120 tankers per year. EAPC responded to Mongabay’s request for comment via a Tel Aviv-based media strategy consulting firm named Together, which disputed that figure while declining to provide projected tanker traffic or oil volumes.

“Any addition in marine traffic adds acoustic pollution, exposure to antifouling (toxic) compounds and increased sedimentation,” Fine said. “But oil tankers are a different story.” Tankers present an even more immediate threat here because the proximity of the terminal and shipping lanes to reefs and the narrow topography of the basin mean response times to avert disaster would be incredibly short in the event of a spill.

A deplorable track record

EAPC, an Israeli state-owned enterprise, caused what is widely described as Israel’s worst ever environmental disaster in 2014, when the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline spilled 4.9 million liters (1.3 million gallons) of oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve near Eilat. The civil enforcement unit of the State Attorney’s Office slapped the company with an unprecedented $30 million in damages. Five of the company’s current and previous senior officials were told last year they may be prosecuted for their part in the incident.

Oil from the EAPC 2014 spill clogs run-off channels in Evrona nature reserve. Image courtesy of Noam Weiss.
Oil from the EAPC 2014 spill spreads across Evrona nature reserve. Image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Ministry-2.

But that wasn’t EAPC’s first major spill. Or even its largest. A previous pipeline rupture in 1975 released an estimated 7.9 million to 9.8 million liters (2.1 million to 2.6 million gallons) of oil around 4.5 km (2.8 mi) south of the 2014 spill site.

EAPC was convicted in February 2020 of damaging 2,600 corals during maintenance of the Eilat pipeline terminal jetty in 2014. And in November 2020, a fuel tank leak near Ashkelon apparently violated Israel’s Prevention of Hazards law and is under criminal investigation by the country’s “green police,” an environmental arm of law enforcement overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The Nahal Zin Nature Reserve also felt the pointy end of an EAPC spill incident when a tractor punctured a pipeline, releasing 1.5 million liters (nearly 400,000 gallons) of jet fuel in 2011. A further 100,000 liters (some 26,400 gallons) spilled half a kilometer south a few weeks later during the cleanup operation for the first incident. EAPC denied culpability as the tractor was driven by a subcontractor. An indictment was filed by the State Attorney’s Office, but the case has not progressed.

Local fears, global concerns

Eilat residents describe how in the 1960s and ’70s, when the pipeline had smaller tankers docking more regularly, leaks were frequent and coral was damaged. “There were a lot of leaks — every year there were about 15-20 leaks,” Schmuel Taggar, an activist and community leader, told Mongabay. “But then we weren’t a tourism economy and we didn’t think of the environment.” Now he says Eilat has more than 15,000 rooms for tourists, catering to people “coming to see the corals and the nature — they won’t come to see oil tankers!”

Taggar isn’t alone in remembering damage from EAPC tankers. Ben Mieremet, an environmental scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who helped set up the Binational Red Sea Marine Peace Park, noted that in 1994 when he first saw it, the “coral reef at Eilat had suffered severe impacts from oil spills … over a 20-year period.”

Locals have protested the EAPC-MRLB deal, fearing for its impact on their livelihoods. They are backed by 26 environmental organizations campaigning to overturn the agreement. In a letter to Israel’s new coalition government, inaugurated June 14, the organizations asked for the deal to be halted until proper environmental impact assessments followed by government consultation have been carried out.

People in Eilat protest against the EAPC-MRLB deal increasing oil tanker traffic next to their local protected coral reefs. Image courtesy of NGO, Zalul.
Activists protest the EAPC-MRLB deal next to the pipeline terminal at Eilat. Image courtesy of NGO, The Coast Patrol.

“It is important that the [Abraham] Accords be aligned to combating the climate crisis and not be misused in a manner that both risks our fragile environment and runs contrary to declared U.S./Israeli commitments,” the group said in a letter to John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate.

No confidence

Confidence in EAPC avoiding or appropriately managing technical errors, terrorist acts or collisions is very low. “I wouldn’t trust anyone when it comes to bringing a major threat and coral killer next to a coral reef with the highest chances of surviving climate change, definitely not EAPC … given their bad reputation and the known bad state of their facilities,” coral scientist Fine said.

Youval Arbel, sea campaigns manager at the environmental NGO Zalul, agrees. “I have no confidence since there is no transparency and because of the oil spills they had in the past,” he said. EAPC’s operations are especially opaque as information about the company is frequently subject to state censorship due to the company’s founding partnership with Iran and its de facto exemption from environmental impact assessments.

Zalul filed a High Court petition with two other NGOS on the grounds that the deal was made outside of government requirements and goes against international commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

“It is impossible not to have a substantive and meaningful government debate on such a dramatic issue, whose impact could be catastrophic,” former environment minister Gila Gamliel said in a letter sent to Israel’s National Security Council in June that called for the deal to be cancelled. “The agreement was signed without us receiving its wording and without consulting the Ministry of Environmental Protection prior to its signing.”

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not respond to Mongabay’s repeated requests for comment. But hopes are high that Israel’s new coalition government will reverse course if proper consultation and environmental impact assessments are carried out. “This government now is very green,” local activist Taggar said of Israel’s new coalition government. “The new minister of environment is a very, very green lady.”

Business as usual

“The engagement in the agreement is part of the [c]ompany’s regular course of business, and there is no change in its planned activities,” a Together communications consultant quoted EAPC as saying of the new agreement between the four companies. “This is a routine activity, as it has been done for decades and the agreement is no different from hundreds of agreements signed by the company.”

The Together consultant said it is wrong to conclude that EAPC did not fulfil its environmental impact assessment requirements, but would not comment further on whether any assessments had in fact been required, provide specific projections for tanker traffic and oil volume, or address complaints about whether government consultation was carried out.

A tanker docks at the EAPC Eilat pipeline terminal December 2020. Image courtesy of NGO, Zalul.

“In the past, the port had more than 300 ships arriving per year and therefore the expected increase following the agreement, combined with a substantial upgrade in safety of both tanks and shore facilities, will not pose any danger and the activity will continue to be safe,” Together said on behalf of EAPC, adding that “there is no basis for allegations of unusual or above the usual use.”

The yearly maximum amount of oil transported through the pipeline at its previous peak, in the 1970s, was 38 million tons, or less than half of current capacity, according to a video accessible from EAPC’s website, released as part of the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations.

Lead responsibly

“The solution is obvious,” Fine said. “Cancel the Med Red agreement. Terminate EAPC activity. Make Israel a leading country in renewable energy which aspires to a low carbon footprint and a healthy environment.”

Red Sea coral reefs secure the livelihood of millions of people and need to be protected from reckless stakeholders taking decisions that threaten their existence, he said, calling for the Gulf of Aqaba to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its uniquely heat-resistant corals. “We owe this to ourselves and future generations,” Fine said.

Citations:

Fine, M., Gildor, H., & Genin, A. (2013). A coral reef refuge in the Red Sea. Global Change Biology19(12), 3640-3647. doi:10.1111/gcb.12356

Krueger, T., Horwitz, N., Bodin, J., Giovani, M., Escrig, S., Meibom, A., & Fine, M. (2017). Common reef-building coral in the northern Red Sea resistant to elevated temperature and acidification. Royal Society Open Science, 4(5), 170038. doi:10.1098/rsos.170038

Banner image: A dolphin swims past pilings supporting the EAPC Eilat oil pipeline terminal jetty in 2020. Image courtesy of Eliran Ovadia.