Dead sea minerals cream and River of oil embedded in rock in the ground southwest of Jerusalem
When I washed my steps with cream, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil;(Job 29:6)
In 2009 an Israeli geologist discovered oil embedded in rock in the ground southwest of Jerusalem. There's lots of it — and it could change the Middle East forever
One day in August 2009, a geologist named Yuval Bartov sank a drill into the ground southwest ofJerusalem, pulled up a cylinder of rock and, in the same motion, turned the world upside down. The rock contained oil, something that Israel has never had. The oil did not happen to be in liquid form, but the geologist knew someone with a plan to change that.
Bartov works with Harold Vinegar, an oil-industry legend who during a career as chief scientist for Shellhelped pioneer methods to basically melt oil out of rock while it is still underground, then pump the liquid to the surface for collecting. Now, working for a company called Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), both men are preparing to test the method in hopes of exploiting Israeli oil reserves that, in the form of rock, appear to be as large as the oil that sits below the surface of the Saudi Arabian desert in liquid form.
“We think that within a decade we can get 50,000 to 100,000 barrels a day,” says Relik Shafir, IEI chief executive officer.
The product is called oil shale, and unhelpfully so, because that’s far too easily confused with shale oil, which is something else altogether (shale oil exists in liquid form, but in tiny amounts that must be loosened before being harvested; it’s also known as tight oil). The better term for the form Israel’s oil takes may be kerogen, the name for the organic matter embedded in rock — any rock, not necessarily shale — that, were it buried a few hundred meters deeper in the earth, would have melted into petroleum. What IEI proposes to do is to warm it up right where it is, by drilling hundreds of holes into it, then slowly heating them up, through stainless steel cables unspooled to a depth of 300 m (990 ft.), where the oil-bearing rock stands. After about three years, the oil will be seeping out and can be pulled to the surface.
“Very light. Superhigh quality,” says Vinegar, holding a test tube of a sample produced by heating a slab of kerogen in a lab. “Surprisingly easy to refine, it turns out. Which makes it even more valuable.”
If this seems too good to be true, managers at IEI say Israeli officials are among those pinching themselves, even as they facilitate preparations for a test well. Not having oil has always been part of the Israeli identity. Between 1948 and ’86, when Israel’s state petroleum effort was finally abandoned, 440 wells were sunk in the Jewish state, every one a dry hole. Israelis joke that Moses led the Israelites into the only place in the Middle East with no petrochemical potential. Lack of oil was one more thing that separated Israel from its Arab enemies, who had lots of it. The apparent absence of oil below ground helped impel Israelis to develop alternatives — from miraculous desert agriculture to the armaments industry that spawned the “start-up nation,” including an electric-car enterprise, Better Place, marketed in part as a comeuppance to Arab oil.
All that began to change when natural gas was discovered 80 km (50 miles) off Haifa in 2009. The Tamar gas fieldcame online in March, to great satisfaction across Israel. The gas will raise Israel’s GDP a full percentage point, the Bank of Israel says, and along with a second gas find another 50 km (30 miles) out, called Leviathan, could turn Israel into an energy exporter — without stealing any thunder from the kerogen find. Vinegar says the gas would provide the power to heat the subterranean kerogen fields, at least until gas released as a by-product of the kerogen harvest is repurposed for the job.
“From our viewpoint, it couldn’t be better to have discovered all this natural gas,” he says, noting a pipeline would run only 55 km (35 miles) from the coast to the work site.
Environmental concerns loom large. Israeli groups challenged IEI in court, but the high court was comforted by geological evidence that the Mountain Aquifer — which lies under the kerogen, and supplies most of Israel’s drinking water — is protected by some 200 m (660 ft.) or more of impermeable rock. A similar layer lies above the kerogen, ostensibly protecting the surface from noxious emissions, another concern.
But can it be done? And at a profit? “The challenge is, Is it technically recoverable?” says Simon Henderson, energy specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. IEI is now awaiting a license from Israel’s Interior Ministry for a pilot project, which will occupy a few square meters, all the scientists say they need for a single well. That will take three years, and will be informed by Vinegar’s three decades of experience with Shell, which developed test sites on more complicated terrain in the American West, where a vast kerogen field lay in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.
The economics are likewise provisional. IEI estimates melting the oil in Israel’s Shelfa Basin will cost about $40 a barrel — too much when oil was selling for about that, but attractive since the price has nested north of $100. Analysts expect it to stay in that vicinity. But as liquid oil grows harder to find and more expensive to extract, alternate approaches like tar sands (which contain extremely viscous oil that must be released at considerable expense) and tight oil (reached through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) have become cost effective. Advances in technology may make them even more so, according to Fadel Gheit, senior oil-and-gas analyst at Oppenheimer & Co.
“The people who were talking about peak oil 20 years ago are eating their words,” Gheit tells TIME, referring to dire predictions of decline as civilization passed the halfway point of earth’s total supply of liquid oil. Gheit notes that the percentage of liquid oil recovered per deposit went from the low 20s to the mid-70s in the past half century, and “unconventional” oil is delivering profits while recovering much lower levels per deposit. “So imagine the upside potential in recovery — and it’s not going to take 50 years,” Gheit goes on. “There are thousands of engineers and scientists working on this 24/7. One of them is going to reach the Promised Land sooner or later.”
Perhaps literally. IEI is mostly owned by Genie Energy, but investors include Jacob Rothschild, whose family built much of Israel, and the hedge-fund legend Michael Steinhardt, who chairs the IEI board. Vinegar, who is also Jewish, went to Israel after a career in an industry that, aligned as it was with the Arab world, was only too happy for an excuse to avoid working in the Jewish state. But the kerogen find in what the Bible calls Elah Valley — where David slew Goliath — not only allowed him to put his life’s work into practice, it also dovetailed with a political dream.
The kerogen formation that geologist Bartov first confirmed in 2009 extends beyond Israel. It runs across the few kilometers east to the Palestinian West Bank — Vinegar flourished a sample from there, darker than the chalky Israeli sample — and into Jordan, where the known kerogen formation is as large as all of Israel itself. Shell is working with King Abdullah II to develop it, in a country that has almost no mineral resources. Egypt has potential as well.
“The truth is, Israel is sitting on the best,” says Vinegar. Its oil could well lock in the energy independence that’s promised by natural gas — an independence that’s first of all economic: every dollar’s worth of oil or gas Israel produces is a dollar of hard currency available for other uses. But in Israel’s case, energy independence also involves military security. When the country fights wars, as it has every few years, insurance companies bar oil tankers from venturing into its ports. As a practical matter, that limits a war to the length of time it takes Israel to burn through petroleum it has stored.
But Vinegar sees a potential beyond hard currency, or even the brand of security provided by military assets. He envisions Israel, with its existing complex refineries, excellent infrastructure and seaports as a natural nexus for “an integrated energy zone” that spans borders and unites countries no longer quite at war, but not terribly close, either.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. There the earth has gone down to a depth of 427 m below sea level. In the lowest place there are unique climatic conditions (micro-climate) that make this the largest natural spa in the world and this naturally attracts scholars and visitors from around the world year round.
The Dead Sea is the lowest section of the Syro-African Depression which is 6500 km long. Its length is about 50 kilometers and its maximum width, between Ein Gedi and Arnon is 17 km. The lake volume is 140 billion m³ of water, in which about 50 billion tons of saltsand minerals are dissolved. The steep hilly shore on the east bank leaves a very narrow lake edge. On the West Bank the open areas are more widespread. They are a result of erosion that brings with it various sediments and clay.
The Dead Sea's unique composition of natural minerals derives from dissolving of the salt created in the natural evaporation process of the lake's water. The compound is refined through the solar radiation which neutralizes the sodium chloride (that sinks to the bottom) and leaves the compound rich with a high concentration of cation minerals such as magnesium, sodium and calcium and anion minerals such as phosphorus and boron. The high concentration causes high density of the water and consequently it is possible to float on it.
A large part of the Dead Sea salts and minerals penetrate the skin and this makes the Dead Sea the only area in the world in which the natural healing method of climatotherapy is applied for treatment of various diseases.
In addition hot mineral springs flow around the Dead Sea shores, natural hot springs that are rich in sulfur and minerals. The mineral composition and the high temperature of the springs make them unique as factors in relief of different types of skin and joint diseases.
Dead Sea Mud
The mud produced from the banks of the Dead Sea has become famous around the world because of its healing capacities in stress relief, releasing painful muscles and healing rheumatic pains. The organic mud, black in color (which in its natural form is characterized by a sharp smell) is made up of layers of the mountain soil and silt from the waters of the Jordan River and the springs, and it has sunk deep into the lake. On its way the soil absorbs a very rich concentration of minerals and enriches the lake's waters.
Scientific studies carried out on the mineral mud have proved, beyond any doubt, its benefits in maintaining a healthy skin. The mud has a strong cleansing capacity which absorbs pollutions, fat and secretions from the skin (it has been proved clinically that Streptococci do not survive in mud). In addition, it has capacities for rehabilitation, renewal and strengthening of the skin layer and is thus ideal for healing rheumatic pains, relieving symptoms of chronic inflammation and increased dryness of skin, seborrhea, psoriasis and eczema.
These uniquely Israeli companies have captured the rejuvenating properties of the Dead Sea region in their skin care products. Using plant offshoots native to the Dead Sea region, selected vitamins and Dead Sea minerals in their creams, Ahava and Premier creams provide natural long-lasting hydration. Ahava’s Purifying Mud Mask features the minerals of the Dead Sea to clean the skin deeply and thoroughly. Exfoliators abound in today’s skin care regiment. The Mud Exfoliates from a blend of Dead Sea mud and minerals, and works to gently peel surface skin cells to a smooth result. Dermud facial products in the Ahava line further exploit the wonders of the Dead Sea region. In addition, scrubs, bath salts, shampoos, mineral care products and mineral soaps are available from Ahava and Premier Dead Sea Skin Care.
Ahava and Premier Dead Sea Skin Care offer the 3D Complex of skin care: Dead Sea Water Mineral Skin Osmoter (MSO); Dunaleilla Algae: a one-of-a-kind microscopic algae, which has grown in the Dead Sea for thousands of years; and Desert Plants: Tigonella Shrub and Jujube Tree, are two plants with unique properties that allow them to survive in harsh desert conditions.