Twenty-three years after he got a taste of oil off the shores of Ashkelon, Yossi Levy has unfinished business.

As the head of the government- run Naphtha company in 1988, Levy was part of a team that drilled deep into the Mediterranean Sea and discovered black gold. But the project, which relied on the secret cooperation of US-based Occidental Petroleum at a time when the Arab boycott of Israel was in full swing, hit a wall in 1990.

“They found oil, but they couldn’t continue because the temperature and the pressure were too high and it was impossible to continue drilling,” Levy told The Jerusalem Post on an industrial boat near the old drilling site on Thursday.

Though they squeezed out 800 barrels, he says, as the price of oil dropped, searching for deep-sea oil became a poor business proposition, and the industry turned its attention to natural gas.

“They stopped and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll come back to it in the future,’ but in the future they never came back!” Now, with oil prices back up and significant advances in technology to help overcome the technical difficulties in the exploration, Levy has returned to his old drilling grounds to finish the task he started all those years ago.

In 2011, he signed on as CEO of Shemen Oil and Gas Exploration and commenced drilling in the Yam-3 field in December of the following year.

“I didn’t think I’d come back here, but when the time came I knew this is the project I want to join. I want to find oil in Israel’s waters, so I hope I’ll be the first to find oil,” he said.

To do so, the company pulled in the Atwood Beacon ocean rig. Rising out of the sea 16 kilometers off the Ashdod coast, the rig, which has been dragged from India to South America before coming to Israel, has been drilling since December, though a technical snag along the road halted the process for several weeks (and drove the cost from $22 million to $138m., forcing the company to raise more funds).

Though Levy had drilled 5,300 meters down in the past, “the last 500 meters are always the hardest.”

The 170 degree centigrade underground heat and immense pressure on the pipes do not help. And while the history of oil in the area is a good sign, just finding it will not be enough.

“We’ll find oil, but the problem is its commercial viability: The size, the quantity. At sea you need a minimum quantity to produce. There’s a certain bound under which there is no point in producing, even at $100 a barrel,” Levy said.

An NSAI study commissioned by the company estimates that there are 120 million barrels of oil, a quantity that Levy says could net $20 billion to $24b. in licenses. If nothing goes wrong, drilling should wrap up this month and the results should be in by August.

“I think it’s very important – not just economically, but strategically – to become energy independent,” said Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff who serves as chairman of the company.

But what if that oil isn’t there? “I try not to think about it,” said Levy. Even if there is barely a drop of oil to be found, there is a chance of finding more of the natural gas that has recently come onto the market.

“What’s wrong with gas?” Levy said with a smile. “Gas [is] good too!”

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