By Anshel Pfeffer, 7 Jul 2011

The biblical battlefield between David and Goliath is about to become the scene of an altogether more modern confrontation: between oil drillers and environmentalists.

Jews have for generations been complaining that while the Arab nations have enjoyed hundreds of billions of petrodollars, Israel, which is in the same region, is almost barren of carbon-based energy resources.

This has already started to change in recent years with the discovery of large offshore natural gas fields near Israel in the Mediterranean, but better may be yet to come.

In early 2012, the first large-scale experimental drilling will go ahead in the Ella Valley, a peaceful agricultural area 50km south-east of Jerusalem, abounding in vineyards and nature reserves, including the Adullam Park, alleged site of the most famous slingshot in history.

The prospectors from Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI) will try to prove that they are the first company in the world that can commercially produce oil from shale, a grey sedimentary rock that is rich in oil but needs a complex and lengthy heating process for the black oil to be extracted.

“Producing a barrel of oil from shale will cost around $40,” says IEI’s CEO, Relik Shafir, a former brigadier general in the Israeli Air Force, who flew one of the F-16s on Israel’s fabled attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor 30 years ago.

“Until recently, before the price of oil went up so much, there was little incentive to invest in shale oil research and technology. Now that the oil price does not look like dropping in the foreseeable future, things are different,” says Mr Shafir.

There is another major reason for the sudden interest in shale oil. Tiny Israel, it seems, has the third largest deposit of shale in the world, which could yield 250 billion barrels of oil. Only the United States and China have more. And, according to former Shell Chief Scientist Harold Vinegar, now living in Israel and working for IEI, Israel’s shale oil deposit is richer and more accessible than the one in America.

Just for comparison, Saudi Arabia’s oil deposits are estimated at around 260 billion barrels. But that does not mean that Israel is about to become a major exporter of oil. For a start, IEI still have to still overcome a campaign of opposition by local residents and environmentalists, who claim that the drilling will transform the pleasant valley into a lunar landscape. Second, the extraction process is lengthy and, to build the required technology and infrastructure, billions of dollars of investment are needed.

Not only environmentalists are sceptical. Yossi Langotzky, one of Israel’s leading geologists, who discovered some of the country’s largest natural gas fields, said this week: “It’s a wonderful idea but you have to remember one thing. This technique has not been used anywhere in the world and when you are trying to carry out such a revolutionary procedure for the first time, it is a gamble, technologically, financially and environmentally. There could be many bugs in the system and since this procedure takes years, there is time for things to go wrong.”

So far, IEI has managed to overcome the opposition, which took them as far as the Supreme Court. “We will be monitoring every step to make sure that there is no leak of oil or gas, either underground, into the aquifer or above ground. If we can’t make sure that doesn’t happen, we won’t go ahead,” said Mr Shafir.

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