Desert oil find fuels dream but could prove mirage

Dead Sea discovery shows that 'black gold' flows in Israel but not necessarily in sufficient quantities.

October 13, 2006 01:01
Desert oil find fuels dream but could prove mirage

oil 88. (photo credit: )

Yehoshua Abutbul proudly runs his hands through the pure black flow gushing from the earth. Just moments before, spurts of crude had sent puffs of black mist into the blue desert sky from the Zuk Tamrur 3 drill site off the road climbing towards Arad from the Dead Sea. No small task for a country that has long envied of the riches generated by the "black gold" of its Arab neighbors. Yet, while a stunning success, dreams of energy self-sufficiency may be premature - for the liquid plumes were not an indicator of a subterranean pocket overflowing with oil - exploding upward as a result of natural pressure - but merely the result of a man-made pump attached to the drill shaft and there are no guarantees that fountains of crude petroleum are on Israel's horizon. "This isn't Saudi Arabia here," says the Ginko-Lapidoth technician. Rather, the significance of the coup by Ginko Oil and Gas Exploration and its partner Lapidoth Israel Oil Prospectors, which last week reactivated an old drill site to reveal a minor pocket of the commodity, is to show that oil flows in the area. "For many years Israel was considered to be a country without oil," laments Ginko geologist Eli Tannenbaum. "Here there is oil, as well, they just haven't explored enough." The site, he says, is comparable to other places in the region, noting that its geo-physiology and rift valley location make the area analogous to Egypt's Suez basin oil fields, the Sirt basin in Lybia and oil fields in northeastern Syria. "You have to be consistent in what you believe in and go for it and eventually you will find oil ... Once you understand the trick, you know how to find it relatively easily," he notes. Indeed, Tannenbaum recently published a study showing that the rock type, geographical positioning and other characteristics make it likely that the Dead Sea basin contains the equivalent of "hundreds of millions" of barrels of crude. "Of course, if hundreds of millions of barrels are found here, Israel's position as a country without a source of energy of its own could be affected," Tannenbaum says. Yet, because exploration has only a one-in-10 probability of success, the geologist stresses that it is important not to be disappointed by initial failures. Zuk Tamrur 3 supplied about 170,000 barrels in total before it was closed down in the 1990s when the price of oil fell beneath the cost of producing it given the relatively low-quality crude sourced from the site. Ginko intends to examine about 10 more potential sites in its license area in the near future, all located on undisputed Israeli territory near the southwestern coast of the Dead Sea, between Ein Gedi and Ein Yahav. And while the revived Zuk Tamrur 3 was expected to produce just "hundreds of thousands" of oil barrels in total, Tannenbaum believes Zuk Tamrur 4 - two kilometers to the north - has the potential to provide several million barrels, and that the region as a whole is likely to contain "hundreds of millions" of barrels. Yet, even if "the optimistic forecasts" are realized and enough oil is found in the area to supply Israel's domestic demand, Dr. Doron Gal, an Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya specialist in strategy and energy issues, says it would still not change the geopolitical situation in the region. "What dictates the geopolitical situation here is not Israel's oil consumption, but that of the US, China, India, Europe, and others," although he acknowledges that he is unfamiliar with the Ginko research itself. The existing and emerging world powers' dependence on petroleum from Arab and Islamic countries is apparently only set to increase in the future, he explained, "and their policy - and our geopolitcal condition - is a result of this dependence." Geologically, Gal notes that past experience has shown that even if there is a large deposit of oil in the area, more research must be carried out before it is known how available it is, what quality of crude it contains and how much of it can actually be brought to the surface by reasonable means. And, while this week's entry of businessman Yitzhak Tshuva into the Ginko project is likely to mean that more resources will be made available for further oil exploration in the Dead Sea, Gal says the move only indicates that there is business potential and not necessarily anything beyond that. Delek Drilling Ltd. and Avner Oil Exploration, both controlled by Tshuva, have agreed to take a 50 percent stake in the projects. Assuming Zuk Tamrur 4 contains about 6 million barrels of crude, which could be extracted at a rate of 1,000 barrels a day in the first decade to 15 years, Dr. Amit Mor, CEO of EcoEnergy, a consulting group says "it could be very profitable and economically viable for the company, but from the point of view of the State of Israel's strategic position, that would be marginal." Even domestically the impact would be minimal, he noted, since Israel consumes about 220,000 daily. Nevertheless, he argued that even the recent drop in oil prices did not detract significantly from the economic viability of such projects. "Despite the steep decrease in oil prices from the peak of $79 [per barrel] in early August to $57 today, it is still almost three-fold the average oil price that prevailed until three years ago," Mor says, adding that the "still terribly high" price has led to the reactivation of "tens of thousands of wells around the globe." Currently, the only significant domestic source of petroleum is the Heletz site near Ashkelon, which provides several hundred barrels of oil daily. Opened in 1953, Heletz provided at most a few thousand barrels of oil each day at the peak of its production, bringing its total output in the intervening decades to a few million barrels, Mor estimated. Natural gas exploration has yielded somewhat better results, with fields under Arad and offshore providing the cleaner and more efficient fuel. Another potential source of fossil fuel in the Dead Sea area is the roughly 15 billion tons of hydrocaron-rich oil shale found there, which could be mixed with about 5 billion tons of low-quality heavy fuel residuals and asphalt waste and processed to produce about 7.5 billion tons of high quality oil, according to a recently developed and patented technology calls AFSK-Homtov, Mor notes. He soon expects to learn somewhat more about the nature of the Dead Sea site and the crude it contains due to Delek's entry and its requirement to publish data through the Tel Aviv bourse given its status as a publicly-traded company. Ginko "attributes great importance to the partnership with Tshuva's petroleum companies both from the aspect of the investment and from the aspect of the experience and capabilities of Tshuva's group [Delek] in the area of oil and gas exploration in the country." "Naturally, if a big player joins you it's a very nice hint to investors," Tannenbaum says. A source close to Delek, however, indicates that while the company entered the partnership due to assessments that the Zuk Tamrur 4 site indeed contains significantly more oil than Zuk Tamrur 3, the company is skeptical about whether it contains five or six million barrels, as Ginko has suggested is likely. It also, he says, is not eager to associate the Delek name with preliminary statements that the Dead Sea area could contain hundreds of millions of barrels of oil "[They] would be happy if that [assessment] turns out to be true, but are not partners to it ... [Delek is a company that] does not spread numbers before the drilling results and prefers to see success in the actual drilling and not in the newspaper," he says. The company, nonetheless, was persuaded to invest in what it sees as "appropriate and legitimate prospects" for oil exploration, the source adds.

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