Israel's Environmental Dilemma Does Switching to Natural Gas Put Renewable Energy in Peril?

Article excerpt

Haifa residents have long been accustomed to high levels of air pollution spewing from the oil refineries and chemical and metal manufacturing plants lining the shores of the city's bay. "Haifa is the most polluted city in Israel," says Yael Cohen Paran, CEO of the Israel Energy Forum, a nongovernmental organization devoted to sustainable energy policy. "It's so polluted because the industry is right there, and the refineries are one of the most polluting elements." But in 2011, the city's refineries and plants connected to the nation's natural gas network. "Once they switched to gas--I'm not saying all the pollution's over--but it has really improved. It's been dramatic."

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Today, about 40 percent of Israel's electricity is fueled by natural gas, a cheaper option than coal and oil that produces less air pollution, according to Paran. "Carbon dioxide emissions are much lower when using gas, because it's more efficient in its power stations than coal," she says. 'We have very old coal plants that can reach 30, maybe 40 percent efficiency at best. So for all electricity using coal, only 40 percent is transferred to energy and the rest is not used. With gas, it's up to 60 percent, double the efficiency, and half the carbon dioxide emissions."

Noble Energy, the largest company developing Israel's offshore natural gas reserves, says the country has saved 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. "That's the equivalent of taking all the cars in Israel off the road for a year," says Lawson Freeman, Noble's in-country chief.

As a fossil fuel, natural gas still releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Environmental organizations in Israel have voiced concerns that the government is not sufficiently regulating the gas companies to ensure they comply with environmental best practices. "People don't understand that gas is also a polluting source of energy and a source of carbon dioxide," says Uri Marinov, the first director general of Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection. "While it is better than coal, it still needs to be replaced with renewable energy." According to the UN-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, natural gas produces about 5.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year worldwide. In addition, natural gas leaks during production are responsible for emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, many Israelis remain unconcerned about the environmental consequences of natural gas, says Eitan Parnass, founder and CEO of the Renewable Energy Association of Israel. Fuel is cheap and natural gas drilling happens offshore, far away from people's homes--unlike the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." "People read in the paper that in the United States people are drilling so much, and what happens to their water reservoirs," says Parnass. …