There's an old joke that if Moses had turned right when he led Jewish tribes out of Egypt, Israel might be where Saudi Arabia is today — and be rich from oil. Consultant Amit Mor of Eco Energy says that joke is out of date.
"Israel has more oil than Saudi Arabia," he claims. "And it's not a joke."
But that oil will be difficult to reach, if it can be recovered at all. The oil he's talking about is not yet liquid but is trapped in rocks underground.
"Maybe, if technology will be proved viable, Israel can meet all of its needs from domestic production of oil," Mor says.
That is precisely the dream of Israel Energy Initiatives, an Israeli company backed by major U.S. investors.
"The motivation of our investors starts with the energy independence for Israel," says Relik Shafir, its CEO.
He explains that extracting the oil would be a long, slow process. The technology involves placing electric heaters in an 8-inch pipe about 1,000 feet below the ground.
"Through a slow heating process that may take two to three years, it turns the organic part of the rock into gases and liquids," Shafir says.
Commercial production is at least a decade away, and the hurdles aren't just technical. They are environmental and political as well.
Surrounded By History
A windy perch in a nature park south of Jerusalem gives a good view of the spot where a pilot project would go. It's next to farmland and a two-lane road. The road crosses the dry riverbed where David, in the biblical story, is said to have found the stone he used to kill the giant Goliath.
Religious pilgrims are regular visitors here. On this day, a busload of Christians from Africa and another from the U.S. stop by. Local resident Sigal Sprukt worries that even a slow-paced oil industry would change the nature of this place.
"The area is one of the last areas that are not ruined by cities," Sprukt says. "The history of the Jewish people is all around here."
"Right now, we don't need this oil," she says. "When we finish the gas, and you have the technology, a good technology, come back and do it here."
There are an estimated 400 billion barrels of oil trapped in rocks here. That's enough to cover Israel's current oil consumption for centuries. Meanwhile, a much smaller field of conventional oil is ramping up production.
Workers recently moved gigantic steel pipes in place for Givot Olam's sixth well. The publicly traded company has "proven and probable" reserves of 12.5 million barrels of oil. CEO Tovia Luskin expects to drill 40 wells eventually, plus build a pipeline to a refinery on the coast. Luskin is a Hasidic Jew, originally from Russia. He chose where to drill based on a passage from the Bible.
"After the first well, we had signs we could not walk away from," Luskin says. "We had a liter of oil, then we had a few barrels of oil, then we had a bit more barrels of oil. Now we're in production."
But Luskin is facing local opposition, too: Palestinian opposition. The land he's drilling is right up against the Israeli-built security barrier in and around the West Bank. Israeli officials don't want to discuss whether the field continues to the Palestinian side. Luskin says flatly that it is Jewish land.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority says it is preparing tenders for oil exploration in the West Bank.