For decades, Israel has been a poor man in the oil-rich Middle East. Now, geologists and drillers insist that Israel may one day swim in its own oil and natural gas.
Israel’s oil exploration began in 1947 before the country existed. It seemed obvious that to achieve true independence, a country must supply its own energy needs without reliance on foreign entities. Eight years later in 1955, the Lapidoth Company discovered Israel’s first oil well in the Cheletz area south of Ashkelon. The excitement was overwhelming, inspiring a New York radio commentator to announce, “The Land of Milk and Honey is now flowing with oil; the riches of Arabia have come to tiny Israel.”
Nothing much happened until one week in 1962 when drillers at the Cheletz field thought they had hit a bonanza as their drill biting one hundred feet beneath the surface suddenly dropped six to eight feet into a subterranean cave. Oil is usually found in minute pores between sand grains and finding an entire cavern of oil was almost unheard of. This led an American engineer to suggest that the well might produce three to four thousand barrels a day. And if oil like this location extended in several directions, he added, there might be enough oil here to serve all Israel’s energy requirements. Alas, after a few days of extraction the oil in the cave petered out and was replaced by water. In reality, the cavity contained a lake of water topped with a thin film of oil.
After the investment of six oil rigs, the company concluded that the Cheletz field was insignificant and that its tiny reserve of fourteen million barrels barely enough to keep Israel’s lights burning for four months. Since that time things haven’t improved much on Israel’s mainland. 410 oil wells drilled everywhere have turned up skinny pickings.
Israel’s hopes for oil sufficiency soared in 1967 with the capture of Egypt’s Abud Rudeis oil fields in the Sinai Peninsular. From 1967 to 1975, the national company Netevei Neft supplied almost 65% of Israel oil requirements from the captured fields. To provide housing for workers and technicians, Israel established a desert village in the area replete with preschool nursery and infant care.
But the 1973 war put a stop to the glut; Israeli was forced to return the Abu Rudeis fields in November 1975. Then hopes ran high with the development of the Alma oilfield in southern Sinai that was estimated to hold a hundred billion dollars of oil reserves. These hopes too were dashed by the 1979 peace agreement with Anwar Sadat that returned the Sinai to Egypt.
Bible Inspired Drilling
Israel’s search for oil includes four unusual schemes inspired by verses in the Chumash.
The first incident occurred in the early 60s when Californian fundamentalist Wesley Hancock applied for a license to drill for oil in Israel’s Carmel mountain range at Haifa. His logic was threefold. First, this area was part of the territory of the tribe of Asher who had been promised he would dip his foot in oil. Secondly, he figured, if Eliyohu made water burn during his conflict with the prophets of Baal, wouldn’t it have helped if a little natural petroleum was mixed in. Third, he had received a sign from heaven. This happened on his way to a meeting in Denver, Colorado, when his elevator stopped at the wrong floor and he entered an office adorned with the photo of a oil rig in Israel. For him, this was reason enough to head for Israel and get to work.
Israel issued Hancock’s brand new Asher Oil Company with a license and he sank a million dollars into drilling two holes in the region. Both were bone dry. He was preparing to drill a third hole when his fiancé gave him an ultimatum: “Either marry me and stay in California, or continue fulfilling prophecies.” Wesley chose the first course, effectively putting a stop to his oil schemes.
The second verse involved story began in 1981 when Texas oilman, Andy SoRelle, interpreted the dip his foot in oil verse as hinting at the southern region of Asher’s territory. He began drilling south of Haifa. Ten months later after the expenditure of six million dollars his drill reached 17,296 deep but hitting nary a drop of oil. Undeterred, he secured the use of Israel’s biggest rig and sank another three million dollars into delving further down at the cost of $23,000 a day. Complications halted his efforts at the depth of 21,428 feet – over four miles underground.
The third verse inspired oil venture involved the Givot Olam company founded by the Torah observant Toviah Luskin, a Russian born geologist working in Australia. He was inspired by Menashe and Efraim’s blessing that included the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills (givot olam). Coming across a 1988 oil report titled, “Hydrocarbon Potential of Israel, Highlights of Basin Analysis, 1988; Prepared for State of Israel, Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure,” he was amazed to discover that its conclusions coincided precisely with his geological interpretation of the above verse.
Arguing that the discovery of oil would help alleviate Israel’s one billion dollar annual import of petroleum Luskin began investigating the Rosh Ayin area in the tribe of Menashe’s historical domain territory and hit on a spot now known as the Meged field.
“It took us a while to explore and we had plenty of dry holes,” he said, “but today the Meged field is producing oil, and our company, Givot Olam, which has the licenses to explore and produce in the field, is profitable.”
His company boasts that “Givot Olam is the first and only oil and gas exploration firm to have discovered substantial commercial quantities of oil onshore Israel in the past 50 years during its exploring for oil and gas since 1992… Givot Olam is currently in the planning stages of the multi-well development and production of the Meged Oil Field.”
Although the Meged field only has proved reserves of 1.5 million barrels, Luskin believes it contains 200 million barrels or enough to supply ten percent of Israel’s energy needs. But he complains that with the growing of Israel’s oil producing potential the government has begun hiking the cost of licenses for oil and gas exploration retroactively. He calls this “state sponsored theft.”
A fourth verse based company is the Zion Oil company founded by John M. Brown. Twenty years ago, he was struck by the many Torah verses hinting at oil: Yosef was blessed with the things of the deep beneath, Asher will dip his foot in oil, and suchlike. This led him to begin a search in Megido south of Haifa and since then he has widened his search over an area of approximately 327,000 acres between Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Sea and Shale
So far, Israel’s landlocked oil discoveries are insignificant. Israel’s territorial waters are more promising with an estimated five billion barrels of recoverable oil. But the country is pinning more hopes on offshore gas. Since 1988 Israel discovered trillions of cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas off Israel and Gaza and by 2005 it was producing 25 million cubic feet a year. Gas is being delivered to Israel along a sea to shore pipeline from the Mari and Noa fields that have reserves of 1.7 Tcf. Even Palestinian Gaza has a gas field of an estimated 1.2 Tcf.
Potentially far greater than Israel’s gas reserves are huge oil shale reserves buried beneath 15% of its stones and soil. After America and China, Israel seems to have the third largest reserve in the world to the tune of 250 billion barrels. This is equal to the reserves of Saudi Arabia, albeit far more difficult to extract.
Trapped in sedimentary rocks, oil shale is more expensive and environmentally damaging to extract than regular oil, but if oil prices rise it is waiting and ready in vast quantity. By way of historical precedent, following the 1973 oil crisis, world production of oil shale shot up to 46 million tonnes per annum; cheaper petroleum prices in the 80s pulled the production down to 16 million tonnes in 2000.
Oil shale is already used extensively in Brazil, China, Estonia and to a lesser extent in Germany and Russia. Since 1978, Israel utilized shale oil at a small test pilot in the Negev that used half a million tons of oil shale annually extracted from a nearby open mine. Much of the mountains of waste products generated was used to produce cat litter. Israel Chemicals closed the plant in April, 2011, explaining that its meager profits did not justify the damage it was wreaking on the environment.
Indeed, oil-shale extraction has great potential for wrecking the environment, damaging biological and recreational value of land and the ecosystems, generating mountains of waste material, and producing more greenhouse gases than conventional oil and other atmospheric poisons. It also consumes seas of water. In 2002, the oil shale-fired power industry used 91% of the water consumed in Estonia. That is why the Greenpeace organization adamantly opposes the processing of oil shale in Israel. Some months ago I became personally involved with the issue. While walking down the main road of Yerushalayim’s German Colony neighborhood I came across two Greenpeace activists rousing people to the dangers of a proposed project to utilize oil shale in the Abdullah-Elah valley region near Beit Shemesh, a town with a rapidly growing Torah community. They explained to me that the process of processing oil shale releases environmentally hazardous poisonous gases and water pollutants and argued that specialty lenient government regulations make it easy for companies to circumvent public opposition. In return for my sympathetic ear I received a nifty key ring bearing the organization’s name.
However, a competing environmental organization, Greenspirit, claims that it is a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater and insists that solutions can be found. In Canada, for example, every inch of land damaged through extracting oil from its oil sands must be reclaimed as good as new. Hopefully, by finding a way to navigate between the raindrops, Israel will be able to have her cake and eat it. By utilizing natural gas and oil shale, Israel may be able to bid farewell to her unwanted dependency on foreign coal and oil.
(Contributing source: Tzvi Alexander, Israel’s Covert Efforts to Secure Oil Supplies, Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2004)