Haifa Bay Oil Refineries, Israel

Home to more than 272,000 people, Haifa is the third most populated city in Israel[1], and stretches across almost 9% of Israel’s shoreline. Haifa is considered a key industrial center in Israel, and is home to an energy group called the ORL (Oil Refineries Ltd.) which operates Israel’s largest oil refining complex.

Haifa Bay oil refineries (Wikimedia N.D.

Children of Haifa and Air Pollution

“Air pollution” (Palmer 1941).

The ORL is the biggest air polluter in Haifa, emitting 1,432 tons of NO and 1.7 million tons of CO2 in 2012. Unfortunately, the children of Haifa bare the environmental costs to a very high degree. A 2012 study concluded that children in Haifa suffer from an asthma rate of 16%, compared to a national average of only 7%.[2] An analysis of hospitalization data of children from 2005 reveals that children in Haifa have the highest hospitalization rate in the nation[3].

Children are more sensitive to air pollution than adults:

  • Their bodies are less efficient at removing toxins as they lack certain liver enzymes, which develop at a later age[4].
  • Children have higher lung-face-to-body-mass ratios, and hence breathe fifty percent more air per unit body mass than adults[5].
  • Children spend more time outside than adults, and are therefore exposed to more airborne toxins[6].
  • Emission standards and regulations are calculated based on the physiologies of adults, and are hence inherently ineffective for children[7].

Marginalization of Children

To understand the situation of the 50,000 children under the age of 14 in Haifa it is first necessary to consider the general issues that children face in society today. It may be quite obvious that children as a whole are significantly less capable of countering any sort of harmful behavior. E.g., they rely on their parents to take the necessary actions such as relocation.

Recent articles even suggest that children are treated unequally when it comes to basic human rights. Evidence has been presented that raises “…skepticism regarding the inclusiveness of human rights”[8] in the discourse of children. An instance of this marginalization can be found in the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), a European treaty to protect human rights and freedom. Article 14 of the ECHR claims that the rights and freedoms should be secured “without discrimination on any ground…”. However, for instance, there is no reference to children’s rights to education, as it is the child’s parents who have these rights.[9]

The children of Haifa are not only subject to have less power and influence, as they are marginalized by modern society, but also experience further marginalization by the ORL as the pollution impacts them more than it does others.

ORL Background

The ORL was established as a British government corporation in 1933[10] prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948. It was then sold to the Israeli government in 1959, and was finally privatized entirely in 2007[11]. Today, the majority 37% share in the ORL is owned by a group called the Israel Corporation, which is the largest holding company in Israel today. The Ofer family, specifically Idan Ofer, has held the majority share in the Israel Corporation since 1999. Idan Ofer, whose estimated net worth is nearly $5 billion US, is the wealthiest man in Israel.

Oil in Israel

Oil was used to meet 66% of Israel’s energy needs in 1993, and remains the main energy resource today. Since Israel does not have any domestic oil resources, it is forced to purchase it offshore. Unfortunately, Israel has poor relations with many oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia. This means that Israel has to purchase its oil from farther, more expensive places.

ORL in the Big Picture

Israel has developed an approach in which the priority is to domestically refine oil[12]. The attitude that the ORL is a national asset has allowed the ORL to operate freely without much regulation. In fact, the ORL’s charter gave it special rights, among which are exemptions from taxes and building laws.[13]

Today, plans are underway to expand the ORL complex and other refining activities in the Haifa Bay. However, the ORL claims that it is capable of meeting all of Israel’s oil needs. Hence, this expansion must be related to increasing exports and profits, as opposed to meeting domestic needs. Indeed, 40% of the fuels produced in Israel are exported, and of those 30% are produced in the Haifa Bay.

Steps and Efforts to Improve Situation in Haifa

“Photographs by Yair Gil” (Gil 2011)
  • In May of 2005, the Minister of Environmental Protection signed a personal order issued to the ORL forcing them to adhere to a strict German TA Luft pollution control standard. This forced the ORL to spend over $100 million on reducing emissions and making air pollution data publicly available.
  • In 2009 the Minister of Environmental Protection signed another personal order against the ORL, this time ordering the plant to install purification devices[14].
  • This July a historical debate took place at the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee[15]. The committee officially acknowledged, for the first time, that there is a direct correlation between the air pollution caused by the plants and the high morbidity rates[16].
  • The Green Movement in Haifa is demanding to immediately reduce the air pollution in the Haifa Bay. This movement is accusing the ORL of being the main cause of air pollution in Haifa.
  • This June 300 people protested against the air pollution in the Haifa Bay across the street from the ORL plant. Among these was a couple who came to protest for their newborn, drawing again on the high extent of damage to children specifically.

In spite of these efforts, according to a report by the Ministry of Health, air pollution indicators have been rising rather than falling between 2000 and 2011[17].

The Treadmill of Production

One of the main driving forces in the consideration of these issues is the treadmill of production. According to this concept, owners of the means of production (or the ORL) seek to increase profits, and do so by introducing improvements which drive the expansion of production as well as consumption.

This competitive nature of the market means that the ORL has to continuously drive to increase their margins by exploiting resources and people. The ORL does not bear the environmental, social and economic costs of its operations. For example, it does not pay hospitalization bills for children harmed by air pollution.

The Spatial Fix

In order to solve problems caused by production and growth, capitalists sometimes employ a spatial fix. This term represents a situation in which capitalists seek to spread out over geographical space in order to overcome local problems. These problems, however, are inherent to capitalism, and are not solved by the spatial fix in the long run.

In 1933, the British ordered the ORL be built in the Haifa Bay partially because they did not want to pollute their home as power plants were considered “dirty” at the time[18]. Haifa Bay was an alternative, a spatial fix which allowed the British to avoid polluting their homeland.

The issues discussed here attest to the tendency of spatial fixes to eventually fail.

Sustainable Development in Haifa

Socially, Haifa has seen a decrease in young, working population in recent years[19]. These people are relatively strong socioeconomically and have chosen to get up and leave. Economically, the ORL and other organizations are making huge profits, while other people like the children of Haifa pay much of the environmental costs. Thus, from all three aspects of sustainable development, the situation in the Haifa Bay is unsatisfactory.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is achieved when there exists “…fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In Haifa, marginalized groups, specifically children, suffer tremendously from the air pollution, a situation made worst by the fact that they lack any sort of involvement or influence.


Alternatives do exist, and these are available for both the public as well as the ORL itself. Thinking again in a political economy perspective, both consumption and production need to be altered in order to achieve sustainable development, since economic growth is incompatible with sustainability. On the one hand, the ORL can use resources that cause less emissions such as natural gas, or install more filters and purifiers. On the other hand, the people can improve how they consume energy in their own lives, by for instance increasing their use of public transportation.

A 2013 article explores whether having an oil refinery in Israel is even necessary, a question never doubted before as the ORL is considered a national asset in terms of sociopolitical independence and national security. Yet, according to the article, Israel has the ability to import petroleum products from Europe, where companies are eager to expand to global markets as domestic consumption in Europe is decreasing.


[1] Ben-Ari, S.S. (2014). Environmental and Planning Issues in the Haifa Bay. Jerusalem, Israel: Israeli Government, the Center for Research and Information. 3.
[2] Portnov, B.A., Reiser, B., Karkabi, K., Cohen-Kastel, O. & Dubnov, J. (2011). “High Prevalence of Childhood Asthma in Northern Israel Is Linked to Air Pollution by Particulate Matter: Evidence from GIS Analysis and Bayesian Model Averaging.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research. 264-69.
[3] Lubanov, C. (2005). Environmental In(Justice) Report. The Environmental Justice Committee. 2. http://www.sviva.net/filesystem/Report2005English.pdf
[4] Lubanov (2005)
[5] Lubanov (2005)
[6] Lubanov (2005)
[7] Lubanov (2005)
[8] Roche, J. (2005). “Children, Citizenship and Human Rights.” Journal of Social Sciences, Special Issue: Children’s Citizenship: An emergent discourse on the rights of a child. 43-55.
[9] Roche, J. (2005)
[10] History: Oil Refineries Ltd. http://www.orl.co.il/orl_site/his.html
[11] History: Oil Refineries Ltd.
[12] Arad, N. Home page. http://www.nathanarad.com/?page_id=360
[13] Arad, N.
[14] Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection. Activities and Projects: “Personal Orders to Petrochemical Plants in Haifa”.
[15] Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. (2014). Committee Protocol from 30 July 2014. Jerusalem, Israel: Israeli Government.
[16] Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. (2014)
[17] Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. (2014)
[18] Arad, N.
[19] Ayalon, O., Rosenfeld, Y. & Goldart, T. (2011). Needs and Priorities Toward Thriving and Sustainable Development in the Haifa Bay. Haifa, Israel: Kishon River Authority.


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