High Court hears gas export issue

The State's attorney urged a quick decision arguing by 2015 the Tamar field won't meet Israel's needs and Leviathan won't be ready.

The High Court of Justice will, in a few days, render its decision on natural gas exports. A seven-judge panel today heard the parties' arguments on the petition filed by MKs and social organizations against the cabinet decision to allow the export of up to 40% of Israel's natural gas reserves.

The judges are Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, Vice President Miriam Naor, Edna Arbel, Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran, Esther Hayut, and Noam Sohlberg.

The petitioners claim that approval of the Tzemach Committee's recommendations on the natural gas exports quota should be made by the Knesset, as the sovereign body, not by the executive, because of the issue's huge political, economic, and social importance. During today's hearing, many in the audience noted that the judges declined to intervene, and that they will not dismiss the government's decision on the basis of the legal authority, as the petitioners request. The judges told the petitioners that they spoke too much, and asked them why the Knesset could not pass legislation on the matter.

Judge Grunis cynically asked the petitioners' attorney Adv. Efy Michaely, "Do you want to change Israeli democracy?"

Judge Naor accepted the petitioners' argument that the government's decision changed the rules of the game and created a provisional arrangement, but told the petitioners' attorney Adv. Dana Tabachnik that the only question for debate was whether the creation of this arrangement was made by the proper authority.

The natural gas companies' attorneys directed the judges to the articles in the Oil Law, which they contend give the government the authority to set export policy. Adv. Aner Helman said that there was no place for the High Court of Justice to intervene, because the decision did not affect the basic rights of the individual or the public.

The state's attorney said that the government's decision did not affect basic rights, including the public's basic rights, so there was no justification for the Knesset's intervention. "The government decided on the basis of its authority. The government believes that the amount of residual gas will be enough for 30 years, and no one knows what will happen by then. If the gas runs out, I remind you that there is gas west of here, in Cyprus."

Judge Rubinstein said, "Why don’t you say that this requires parliamentary oversight to guarantee the basic rights of the government?"

In June 2013, the government decided to keep 60% of Israel natural gas reserves for domestic use. This means that the government will hold back 540 billion cubic meters (BCM) of Israel's estimated 900 BCM of gas reserves. The figure is less that the gas exports recommended by the Tzemach Committee, which in September 2012 recommended holding back 500 BCM of gas and permitting exports of 450 BCM, on the assumption that Israel's reserves totaled 950 BCM. It also recommended allowing exports from Tamar only after Israel's gas needs were met.

"No one will invest billions to develop the Leviathan field without knowing who the gas will be sold to," said the state's attorney. "When the Egyptian gas was stopped, the cost was billions of shekels a month, not to mention the environmental damage. That is why the state has an interest in hooking up additional gas fields as soon as possible. The Tzemach Committee was established two years ago. In early 2012, the committee held a hearing for public comments. In September, it was thought that something would be done, but then a new government was established. The decision was made in June, and we're here today. As for the legislative process, we all know how long that takes.

"Honorable President, no one knows how long the process will last in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee. You honors, we'll be here in another year, with no decision. In the summer of 2015, there won't be enough gas for the economy from Tamar. Even if we begin developing Leviathan today, it won't be ready in time. The government must rule. The Sheshinski law was passed quickly, because there was no disagreement."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 20, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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