Did Moses miss the good stuff?

Israel’s tremendous oil shale could lead to energy independence, scientist says.

June 24, 2011 04:03
4 minute read.

Oil (Do not publish again). (photo credit: Avi Katz)


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In an auditorium filled to capacity with those interested in solving the world’s power needs, Dr. Harold Vinegar pulled out a cylindrical lob of stone and a narrow test-tube filled with rosé liquid and proposed the two as one recipe toward achieving energy security and independence.

“Israel should make use of its natural resources that it is blessed with and have been waiting patiently for us for 70 billion years and provide an unconditional path to energy independence,” he said.

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Vinegar was participating in a “New Energy for a New Tomorrow” panel at the Israeli Presidential Conference, in which he was presenting the possibilities that his company – Israel Energy Initiatives – have discovered what he called the country’s enormous capability to produce oil shale from deep within the rocks of Shfela in the Adullam region.

The six-inch diameter cylinder was a sample of the stone that emerges from the drilling, and the pink liquid, the lightweight oil that can be produced as a result, he explained.

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As the world’s conventional oil supply continues to deplete at an annual rate of four-anda- half percent, according to Vinegar, he and the other energy leaders on the panel are looking for ways to make up the resultant energy deficiency.

“The world is running out of inexpensive oil. We’re now working in the arctic in very deep waters, in places where the cost of production is going up significantly,” Vinegar said.


“The growth in world population is putting stress on the demand of hydrocarbons in the future. It’s very important that as we develop the energy we need, we do it in a way that is sustainable,” he said.

Meanwhile, the conventional oil that is still relatively plentiful is located in places inaccessible to the Western world.

“Oil is located in countries that are not very friendly to a western environment,” said panelist Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office. Kandel stressed that Israel must become a catalyst for change – “a country that is accelerating the world effort” to achieve independence from crude oil.

After 27 years of working for Shell Oil and pioneering the US and Canadian oil shale industry, Brooklyn-born Vinegar, 62, made aliya with a clear goal.

“I wanted to do something really good for Israel,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview prior to his panel appearance at the conference.

“I thought that Israel needed a petroleum industry because it has tremendous unused hydrocarbon reserves here.

Until recently people thought it was a joke, that Moses bypassed the good stuff. The real story is Israel is rich in natural gas and it’s got an enormous amounts of oil shale.”

250 billion barrels worth, according to Vinegar.

While the British-based World Energy Council reported at the end of last year that Israel had only about 4 billion barrels, Vinegar said this number accounts only for surface shale oil, which can be mined in the Negev. His company’s process is different, he argued.

“I don’t like mining because you tear the earth apart and you heat the stuff up and make poor oil and have all this rock leftover,” Vinegar told the Post. “You don’t want to do that to the earth,” he said.

His process calls for drilling six-inch diameter holes 400 meters into the shale, slowly heating the system to a temperature of 300 degrees centigrade over a period of three to five years, and gradually producing oil.

“The surface footprint is very small,” he said.

Meanwhile, the most effective substance for the heating process is natural gas, as “it emits the least carbon dioxide” and is “a wonderful tool – very abundant and inexpensive.”

Despite enormous amounts of criticism from environmental activists about his company’s plans – the pilot phase is set to begin next year – Vinegar argued that the process is perfectly safe to Israel’s environment.

“I am sure that we will not have any effect on the aquifers and I’m sure we will have no effect on the air,” Vinegar told the Post. “But I have to prove it to people and that’s why you develop this stuff in stages.”

But back at the panel, Vinegar emphasized that his company’s solution to harness energy from shale oil is hardly on its own going to be a solution for the burgeoning global energy shortage.

“Diversity of energy sources is something in Israel we should plan on – natural gas, oil from shale, solar, all of these will play a role,” Vinegar said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. But I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2100 there is a sustainable energy source that we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Yehuda Bronicki, chairman and founder of Ormat Technologies, stressed the importance of utilizing Israel’s hitech advancements to increase energy efficiency and quicken the adaptation of renewables.

“There is a whole field of energy management, smart meters and everything that all the young people who deal with social networks can use the same algorithms to make a smart grid,” Bronicki said.

Although Vinegar agreed with the sentiments of the other speakers and was all for renewables, he reminded the audience not to have a “closed mind on fossil fuels,” like his oil shale as well as natural gas, all the while.

“I honestly think that natural gas will be a bridge to the future,” he said.

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