By Cnaan Liphshiz

Immigrants from the Beit Shemesh area voiced strong objection this week to what they term the “use of Zionist rhetoric” by Jewish American businessman Michael Steinhardt to promote a controversial oil extraction project in the area. Steinhardt’s Israeli associates said Zionism was the only reason he was involved in the project.

“If he wants to do Zionism, let him pack his bags and move here and help Israeli economy from the inside,” one U.S.-born resident, Rachel Jacobson, said about Steinhardt, the donor of some $125 million to Jewish causes and cofounder of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program for Diaspora Jews. Steinhardt is the chairman of the Board of Israel Energy Initiatives Ltd (IEI ) – a subsidiary of the American-based IDT Corporation – currently exploring oil production in the Adullam region, located between Beit Shemesh and Beit Guvrin. He has said that the exploration of oil in the area was “a Zionist task of the first order” because it would free Israel of oil dependency.

Rachel Jacobson from Moshav Aderet is part of the Committee to Save Adullam – a group of some 15 families who hail from English-speaking countries, trying to slow down the project and expose it to greater scrutiny. “Michael Steinhardt should not be forcing us to accept his decisions from outside,” said Jacobson, a mother of three who grew up in California and immigrated to Israel in 1994.

“Michael Steinhardt will not see a penny from this project before 2022, when he is 83,” said Relik Shafir, IEI’s CEO. “If he were in it for the profit, he would’ve gone for a safer investment that’s quicker.”

Last month, the Save Adullam group sent Steinhardt a letter expressing their concerns about the oil development project, which uses a little-tested shale oil extraction technique. The process uses sustained heating of the ground at a depth of 1,500 meters to convert Kerogen – an organic chemical compound mix found in some rocks – into crude oil.

“We are worried about the danger of irreversible damage to the underground water table, the potential release of hazardous gases as a result of long-term and intensive heating of the shale, and the large-scale release of greenhouse gases predicted to result from commercial-scale oil shale processing,” the committee wrote to Steinhardt.

Shafir said that the chief hydrologist of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, Dr. Avi Burg, concluded that hundreds of meters of a rock layer mean that water contamination risk was almost non-existent. He added that conventional oil extraction techniques are approximately 120 percent higher in greenhouse gas emission levels than his company’s method.

Currently, IEI is operating one pilot project for oil shale extraction in Elah Valley in the Adullam region, with several other extraction points planned before the program potentially graduates from the pilot stage to the production stage in five to six years. According to Shafir, the territory earmarked for use in the production phase will constitute less than one square kilometer.

The company’s chief geologist, Yuval Bartov, said the company was still in the testing phase and was looking into environmental concerns. IEI estimates the region potentially could produce 300,000 barrels of oil a day. According to Shafir, there are currently three pilot programs using a similar extraction method in Colorado. Nowhere in the world is the method used for commercial production, he said.

Steinhardt wrote back to the Adullam committee, requesting that its members no longer contact him directly but rather address all future concerns to IEI, a committee member told Anglo File. In the letter, he also wrote: “If successful this industry will provide prosperity to Israel and your region,” and that “as long as Israel is dependent on foreign sources of energy we will never be truly secure.” Steinhardt did not reply to Anglo File’s query on the matter before press time.

Naftali Smulowitz is a Canadian-born resident of Moshav Aderet, whose population of a few hundred people is roughly one-third Anglo. “I object to the use of Zionist rhetoric to promote this project, which is not in the best interest of country,” he said.

Adullam Committee members including Smulowitz – who came to Israel in 1976 and works as a lawyer for the government – and Jacobson last week attended the first hearing at the Knesset about the project, at the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. The committee heard from the Adullam group as well as IEI officials and will deliver its recommendations after another hearing next week.

Manchester-born Gillian Kay from Aderet says she is concerned the project might put an end to the area’s slow emergence as a tourist area and wine country and advises Steinhardt to invest in “renewable energy instead of mineral resources.” A mother of four who works as a research assistant at Hebrew University, Kay immigrated to Israel with her husband Warren Marland in 1992, and has lived in the Adullam region for the past 13 years.

Joshua Fox, a U.S.-born resident of Aderet, says the fact that shale oil extraction is a new and little-tested technique could mean trouble, and that this requires added vigilance on the part of the state. Fox and other committee members came to the Knesset discussion last Monday wearing bunny ears, to protest the use of Israel “as a guinea pig.”

Fox, a Harvard graduate working in hi-tech, says he’s also concerned about potential damage to the many archaeological sites in the Adullam area. “The project is going to slowly heat an area which is the center of the Zionist dream, the heart of the kingdom of Judah as well as Bar-Kochba period and Talmudic period Judea.

IEI says that the rock insulates against heat leakage to the surface, but Fox, the father of four who immigrated to Israel in 1991, notes the antiquities are already underground, “albeit closer to the surface, and slow cooking at even a low heat has never been tried.”

“We are aiming to perform research and tests, based on our scientific knowledge, which we are willing and seeking to share with the residents,” IEI CEO Shafir said. “But it seems they do not want to engage in communication. If they decide to better understand the subject, I think their concerns will go away.”