"Within a few years, Israel will become one the largest producers of oil and gas in the world." That is the belief of Dr. Harold Vinegar, who until three years ago was Chief Scientist, Physics, of energy giant Royal Dutch Shell. Talking to "Globes", Vinegar says that he estimates that exploration for gas will yield impressive results, but that Israel's true future lies in oil. He believes that the chances of finding regular oil are not high, but that huge quantities of oil shale will make it possible to produce oil in quantities approaching the production of Saudi Arabia.
Vinegar's deep seated belief led him to join IEI (Israel Energy Initiatives), which seeks to produce oil from oil shale in the Judean plain region. Money and technology, he reckons, will not be obstacles to realizing the vision. However, bureaucracy and objections by local residents and by environmental organizations are likely to delay it for a long time.
1. The scientist
Vinegar (62) has the look of a brilliant and eccentric scientist: a shock of silvery hair and a slight potbelly, bushy eyebrows, and heavy-framed spectacles. Friends call him "the Stanley Fischer of energy", and point out that he has 266 patents to his name. Three years ago, he gave up a fantastically large salary, such as only an oil giant like Royal Dutch Shell could offer, and, led by the Zionist vision, chose to immigrate to Israel.
What's your prediction for oil and gas finds?
"On the basis of the data I have seen, it looks as though the gas reserves in Israeli territory amount to at least fifty trillion cubic feet (twice the quantity so far discovered, A.B.). As far oil is concerned, the story is more complicated. The gas discovered so far is biogenic, which means that it does not in itself indicate the presence of oil nearby. In my opinion, the temperature in the relevant strata is not high enough for the formation of oil. On the other hand, in these strata there is a very large wealth of source rocks (that could contain oil or gas, A.B.), and that's a very encouraging fact."
How is it that all this time we thought there was no oil or gas in the region?
"Israel was cut off from the world of oil and gas exploration, mainly because of the Arab boycott. Over that period, a lot of new technologies were introduced, while in Israel, no experts were trained in the field. To the best of my knowledge, I am the first international expert to have immigrated here in recent years."
He was born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, studied physics at Columbia University, and took a doctorate at Harvard. The first project in which he was involved was the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In 1976, he went to work for Royal Dutch Shell.
The oil crisis was at its height. The Arab countries reduced oil supplies to the West because of its support for Israel, and the price of the black gold skyrocketed. The British-Dutch firm was busy trying to find unconventional ways of producing oil at reasonable prices.
Vinegar chose to focus on the invention of a Swedish scientist by the name of Fredrik Ljungström for production of oil from oil shale in situ. Over the years, Vinegar developed Ljungström's method and perfected it, but never had the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of his labors.
In the early 1980s, the Iran-Iraq war broke out, but afterwards the price of oil plummeted, and initiatives for non-conventional oil production were halted or put on a back burner. Vinegar continued working in other areas, and, among other things, developed a method of locating natural gas in oil drillings using MRI. This method gave Shell a substantial advantage over its competitors in deep-water drillings in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil shale came back into fashion following the latest rise in the price of oil, which started after the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Royal Dutch Shell and other companies showed renewed interest in the oil shale deposits in Colorado and Canada, but these deposits proved problematic: the oil shale stratum was not sufficiently sealed, which allowed the oil to percolate and escape into other strata.
Then Vinegar met Israeli geologist Dr. Yuval Bartov, who told him about the shale reserves in the Judean plain. Bartov founded IEI, which, in July 2008, obtained a license from the Ministry of National Infrastructures to explore for oil in an area of 238 square kilometers, south of Beit Shemesh.
"I have examined oil shale deposits all over the world, and nowhere have I seen a reservoir to compare with what we have here in terms of the richness and thickness of the stratum," Vinegar says. "Just in IEI's license area, there is a potential for 40 billion barrels of oil. In Israel as a whole, there are in my estimation 250 billion barrels of oil, and perhaps more. The reserves of Saudi Arabia, for the sake of comparison, are estimated at 260 billion barrels."
At the end of 2008, three years after he was promoted to Chief Scientist at Royal Dutch Shell, Vinegar announced his departure, after 32 years. This was shortly after Shell signed an agreement for the development of an oil shale deposit in Jordan. In early 2009, Vinegar immigrated to Israel, and settled with his family in Maccabim.
"I waited for Shell to sign with the Jordanians," Vinegar recalls, "and then I came to Israel."
Is there a chance that Shell or another oil giant might one day invest in Israel?
"No company like that will come into Israel if it has serious investments in the Arab world."
What did you find when you came here?
"Shortly after I arrived, I volunteered to teach a course at Ben Gurion University. I realized that all my students were from the environmental studies faculty. There is a severe shortage of oil professionals and experts in Israel. There was a government company that was shut down in the 1980s, and while it operated, 450 dry drillings were carried out here. That's an unimaginable figure in the private market."
2. The oil
Over the years, oil exploration adventurers would visit Israel, some of them reminiscent of Indiana Jones, arguing enthusiastically that there had to be legendary oil reserves in the promised land. The adventurers picked their drilling sites according to concealed hints in the Bible the book of Ezekiel was especially popular but the drillings ended in disappointment. The legend of oil riches in Israel turned into a worn-out joke.
According to Vinegar, the oil prospectors weren't entirely mistaken. They only missed by a few hundred meters, or came a few million years too soon. If the oil shale stratum at a depth of 300 meters between Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Gat were laid deeper at, say, two kilometers it would have turned into one of the biggest oil fields in the world. Even at its present depth, the stratum will in the end form an oil reservoir, only we will have a short wait of three million years for it to happen.
A brief scientific explanation: 70 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, the region of Israel and Jordan was mostly covered by the famous Tethys Sea. The land surface formed a basin at the bottom of which the skeletal remains of tiny sea creatures gathered and sank to the seabed.
In this way, in a short period (in geological terms) of a million years, a thick, uniform layer of oil shale was formed: sedimentary rocks containing solid organic material called kerogen.
If this material is heated to high temperatures, hydrocarbons can be extracted from it: oil and natural gas. In the Judean plain, the thickness of the layer reaches 300 meters. An additional deposit, some 40 meters thick, is under the Rotem plain, near Dimona.
Mankind has been extracting oil from oil shale for decades. The first were the Swedes, during the Second World War. They mined the oil shale, burned it in large ovens, and reached a peak production level of 10 thousand barrels a day. Rotem Amfert has used the same method in recent years in the Rotem plain.
Producing oil by this method is very expensive, costing $70-100 per barrel. In the burning process, soot and tar-like substances are released into the air, causing a severe odor nuisance, as Dimona residents will testify.
There is however another method, supposedly cheaper and cleaner. Its inventor was the said Fredrik Ljungström, who proposed heating the oil shale while it was in the ground, and producing the oil from it in situ.
Over three decades, Vinegar perfected Ljungström's method, and today, IEI is convinced that the total cost of producing oil will be $35-40 per barrel.
3. The work plan
On the desk in Vinegar's modest office in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim Industrial Zone stands a test tube containing a reddish liquid. This is high-grade oil produced from an oil shale core extracted from a survey drilling near the settlement of Aderet.
So far, IEI has carried out survey drillings in the Judean plain area, and laboratory tests. The company hopes to start a pilot by the end of the year to demonstrate that Vinegar's heating method works, and that it has no negative effects on the environment.
IEI seeks to carry out the pilot in an eight dunam (two acre) area, probably beside Ela Junction. For two years, two barrels of oil a day will be produced from the site 500 barrels in all, at a total investment of $30-40 million.
"The pilot is designed to determine whether the reservoir meets expectations, and whether our technology is suitable," says Vinegar. "There will be no problem raising the money, and, assuming that the regulation allows us, we will be able to get going without problems."
If the pilot succeeds, and the appropriate permits are obtained, IEI will set out to raise the finance required for commercial production, $2-4 billion. IEI plans to start production from 2017.
On a strip of land measuring 100 meters wide by 200 long, 200 hundred horizontal borings will be made via which the special heating elements will be introduced. The elements will be heated to 300 degrees Celsius, and will operate for three years.
The fluids are meant to separate from the rock, leaving the black, polluting sediment behind, in the bowels of the earth. IEI is sure that the stratum is sufficiently sealed to prevent seepage of fluids into the aquifer, 400 meters lower.
The process is supposed not to release any poisonous gases, and the oil produced will be very easy to refine. This project will consume large amounts of power, but, at the advanced production stage, natural gas will form at the production site, and the use of it to generate heat via molten salt will cut the cost of production and make the process more efficient.
The venture will operate for 25 years, and will advance by 200 meters a year. One of the possible routes is road number 35, the section between Beit Guvrin and the Tarkumia road block a remote area reasonably far from the tourist centers of the Adulam Grove Nature Reserve. By the end of the decade, production will peak at 50,000 barrels a day, about a fifth of Israel's oil consumption.
IEI CEO Relik Shafir estimates that, theoretically, it would be possible to supply the country's entire oil needs, but raising production above 50,000 barrels daily would require huge investment in infrastructure.
"50,000 barrels will supply the oil consumption needs of the military and of civil aviation," says Vinegar, hinting at IEI's main claim, which is that the project will ensure energy independence for Israel.
How will the Sheshinski committee's conclusions on taxation of energy finds affect the new venture's profitability?
"On the whole, the Sheshinski committee taxation is not bad. The model of deferred taxation, until the developers pay back their investment, is logical as far as the oil and gas exploration industry is concerned. What bothers me is not the taxation, but the fact that the State of Israel changed the rules of the game retrospectively, after the developers had already found gas. The taxation regime in Israel before the committee was set up was among the lowest in the world."
Shafir: "The new taxation makes the venture much more worthwhile from the point of view of the state. If oil is sold at $100 a barrel today, then the new taxation, which amounts to 60%, will bring in $36 to the state. In other words, the same barrel of oil that the state currently buys for $100, it will be able to buy from us for $64. This consideration will become much more significant when the price of oil rises, and we see the price rising to at least $150 a barrel by the time we start production."
Will the state be able to cut the price of gasoline to consumers?
Shafir: "Theoretically, if the state wants to pass on the discount to consumers, it will be possible to reduce the price of gasoline by 30-40%, which means something like NIS 4.5 per liter, if we take today's price."
4. The problems
IEI is currently waiting for approval from the local Planning and Construction Committee, in order to be able to start the pilot. The committee's meeting to discuss the application has been delayed by objections from environmental organizations and local residents.
The residents claim that IEI's technology is unproven, and that the venture involves many environmental risks, and they are not prepared to turn the Adulam region, with its high natural and tourism value, into a guinea pig.
The residents have managed to obtain the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and local government representatives, and meanwhile, many environmental organizations have joined the opposition to the venture. Adam Teva v'Din Israel Union for Environmental Defense has filed a petition in the High Court of Justice, requesting a ruling that the Oil Law, under which IEI is entitled to a shortened permit application track, does not apply to production of oil from oil shale.
The state has rejected these claims in its response to the High Court of Justice, and no ruling has yet been handed down on the petition. "In the US," says Vinegar, "once you have the license, it's enough to phone the local Bureau of Land Management to notify it that you are starting drilling. Here, it's more complicated.
"There are so many ministries involved, and each has a share in the planning. That isn't surprising because there was no gas or oil here, and the Petroleum Commissioner has a tiny office."
What about the residents?
"Everywhere we have worked, was have formed ties with the local population. In Colorado and in Canada, the more transparent you are and the better your communications, the better you do. I'm very optimistic. It's always worst at the start, but the pilot will undoubtedly succeed, and I believe that, in time, the residents will understand that it's not so frightening, and that the story has been blown up out of all proportion. One of our jobs is to demonstrate that this venture caries no dangers, and we will do that in the pilot."
IEI, founded in 2008, is controlled (89%) by IDT, owned by Jewish-American billionaire Howard Jonas, who made his fortune out of international dialing cards. Vinegar and founder Dr. Yuval Bartov also own shares.
Last November, two glittering names joined the list of shareholders: media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and Lord Jacob Rothschild, each of whom bought 5.5% of Genie Energy Ltd, the energy arm of IDT, which, besides IEI, also owns an oil shale venture in the US. The purchase valued the two ventures at $200 million.
Other well known investors in the venture are philanthropist and former private equity fund manager Michael Steinhardt, who serves as chairman of IEI, and former US vice president Richard Cheney, who is a director of IDT.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 26, 2011
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