The making of a miracle

Mixing scripture with science in quest for Israel's elusive black gold.

By SAM SER
December 6, 2007 11:58
The making of a miracle

oil 88. (photo credit: )

 
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John Brown is waiting for a miracle. Expecting one, in fact. It's all there, he says, laid out in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 8, in an overlooked part of Solomon's prayer upon the dedication of the Temple: "Also a gentile, who is not of Your people Israel, but will come from a distant land, for Your name's sake... and will come and pray toward this Temple - may You hear from heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and act according to all that the gentile calls out to you, so that all the people of the world may know Your name..." "When I read those words, they pierce my heart," Brown says, "for I am a gentile who has come to pray to the Lord. And I know that when Solomon asks God to do 'all' that the gentile asks of Him, 'all' means oil." Brown, a born-again Christian, has spent the better part of the past 25 years pursuing his belief that the Bible points to vast petroleum deposits in the Holy Land, and that God has sent him to find them. "Now, I know I'm not the only stranger whom God has called to come to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem," he says. "I mean, if you read Zechariah and Isaiah, there are a lot of them. I'm just one of many that He has created for this purpose." The purpose of Brown's company, Zion Oil and Gas, is to find the oil so that Israel can benefit economically, strategically - and prophetically. "Zion's purpose is not just to discover oil and help Israel with its energy needs, but to contribute, if possible, to the Jews' return to Israel. Anything we can do is, to me, God's plan," Brown says. "It's a mitzva - and not because I'm trying to make Christians out of them or anything like that, but because it's all part of God's plan." What God has planned for Zion Oil and Gas is, at this stage, unclear. The company launched a successful initial public offering on the American Stock Exchange in New York this spring. But shortly thereafter Brown had to deliver the news to his shareholders at their first meeting in Dallas that Zion's Ma'anit No. 1 well east of Caesarea had failed to produce the copious amounts of oil he had assured them it would. That hasn't shaken the faith of the tall, broad-shouldered 67-year-old former manufacturing executive - or of his staff, who are eagerly awaiting the expansion of the Ma'anit well for what they believe will be a stunning discovery. Stephen Pierce, Zion's chief geologist, wrote in a 2004 article in the Oil & Gas Journal that "Zion has a strong probability of making a significant discovery of some 484 million barrels of oil." To put that in perspective: total oil production in Israel since 1955 hasn't quite reached 18 million barrels. IN 1981, JOHN BROWN found God. It was the same year that Jim Spillman, an evangelical preacher, found oil in four prophetic passages in the Bible. Specifically: In Deuteronomy 32:13, Moses says, somewhat cryptically: "[God] would suckle him with honey from a stone, and oil from a flinty rock." Although most commentators and Bible scholars assume this is a poetic reference to wild bees' nests in rock crevices and date palms sprouting from scraggly ground, Spillman claims it is instead meant to reflect an oil rig pumping black gold from a well. But where is this treasure? One clue, according to Spillman, lies in Jacob's blessing to Joseph in Genesis 49:25, when he says that God "will bless you with blessings of heaven from above, blessings of the deep crouching below." Similarly, in Deuteronomy 33:13, Moses blesses Joseph, saying, "His land is a blessing of God, with the sweetness of the heavens' dew and of the deep crouching below." Scholars understand the blessing invoked here to be water, citing a parallel structure between dew from the skies and flowing wells. Spillman, however, sees the "blessings of the deep crouching below," again, as oil. The other clue follows in Deuteronomy 33:24: "And to Asher he said, Blessed among the sons is Asher. He shall be accepted by his brothers, and dip his foot in oil." Rather than assume the oil in question is olive oil, which was commonly used for anointing and would be used for dipping in a lavish display of wealth, Spillman insists that here, too, the Bible is speaking of petroleum. And that where the southernmost tip of the territory apportioned to Asher - which is shaped like a foot - borders the territory of Joseph's firstborn son Menashe, there must be oil. Zion does not rely merely on Scripture, however. In part, it was lucky: The Ma'anit well, in what Zion calls its Joseph License, was first drilled in 1994 by Sedot Neft. That company had to abandon the well when it ran out of funds. Zion moved in afterward. The company also relies on science. Says geologist Pierce, "John points his finger to the spot on the map where his faith tells him to look. I put my finger on the same spot on the map because of where my science tells me to look." Pierce is certainly familiar with the location. Right around the same time that Spillman was publishing his theories on the Bible's petroleum prophecies, Pierce was in Israel to perform some analysis work for Superior Oil (later to be purchased by Mobil Oil), contracted by the state. Five years ago, when he heard about Zion's search for oil in Israel, Pierce contacted the company and basically insisted on heading up the geological work. At Zion's offices in Caesarea, Pierce pores over pages of data and sheets of squiggly lines, running for meters along the wall, that tell him about the makeup of the rock layers thousands of meters into the earth. Seismic acquisition equipment making its way back to Israel from a project in Angola will soon scan some 60 kilometers of land in Zion's license area, adding more data that Zion hopes will unlock the secrets of the "deep crouching below." OUT IN THE FIELD, the earth's secrets remain locked away. Four hundred meters from the road, marked only by a small sign next to a rough path worn in the mud, the well that Zion proudly unveiled this spring now sits covered by a massive concrete cap. If there really is oil waiting to be discovered by the Zion crew, it is proving elusive. Despite millions of dollars spent and a well drilled almost five kilometers into the earth, Zion has gathered what it says are promising signs, but there have been no sales yet, no claims of proven reserves. "It's a long process," notes Richard Rinberg, Zion's CEO. "It's not like the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies, where you go out into your backyard, fire your rifle into the ground and oil comes gushing up, making you a multimillionaire." Drilling a well is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor that requires feats of engineering the likes of which Israel has rarely seen. "Imagine you're up in an aircraft at an altitude of 30,000 feet," says Rinberg. "Now imagine a single continuous pipeline going halfway down to the ground. Technologically, and from a cost point of view, it's very difficult." Mechanical difficulties have killed numerous other oil exploration efforts here, and they may yet do the same to Zion. After hitting a snag in the Ma'anit well at a depth of about four kilometers, Zion now wants to reenter the well and, at a depth of about 3.5 km., turn a drill about 20 degrees outward and dig sideways. They want to forge their way down to a depth of almost 6 km., ending up about 800 meters northeast of the well's surface location. That's where they believe they can tap into the ancient Permian rock layer and find their hydrocarbon bounty. "Worldwide, the Permian is one of the greatest oil producers... and it looks very promising here in Israel, particularly northern Israel," says Zion president Glen Perry, an old-time Texas oil man who joined Zion after rehabilitating wells in Siberia and the Republic of Georgia. "Every well that has been drilled to the Permian formation in Israel has seen some type of either oil or gas show. All the science indicates that there is gas in there," Perry says. "The problem has been finding rock that has enough holes in it that the gas is commercial. That is what we're looking for. Our indications are that we will have greater porosity than we have seen in the other wells. Then we hope to enhance that by getting into an area where the rock is cracked. Where you have these cracks, the gas will flow much, much better." Of 470 wells drilled here since 1955, only a quarter have been of commercial interest, and only those in the Negev's Heletz fields have produced more than a trickle of oil. But that doesn't tell the whole story, Perry insists. Only eight wells have been drilled to a considerable depth in the North, and all of them, Perry notes, have returned "shows" of oil or gas that warrant further exploration. Besides, he says, "Texas has more than 356,000 producing wells today, of some 2.5 million that have been drilled. Comparatively, the Zion Oil and Gas license area is 'virgin territory.'" THE ZION OIL AND GAS story is strikingly similar to those of several other prominent born-again Christian oilmen who drilled in Israel based on their interpretation of various biblical passages: Gilman Hill, Andy Sorelle, Jr., Hayseed Stephens and Lyle Harron. All invested millions, and all came up with nothing. (Interestingly, though, a possibly commercial amount of oil was discovered last year near the Dead Sea, in the same general area where Stephens said God told him there would be oil.) There is also Jewish-owned drilling spurred on by the same biblical passages that motivated the above companies, in the form of Tovia Luskin's Givot Olam. The Russian-born geophysicist started drilling near Rosh Ha'ayin (the "Meged" wells) after receiving a blessing from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like Zion Oil and Gas, Givot Olam intends to drill down to a depth of five kilometers and, also like Zion, the company is scrounging for a rig capable of doing so. Ginko, another Israeli company, struck oil west of the Dead Sea, with wells (named "Tzuk Tamrur" and "Emunah") that were deemed uneconomical a decade ago. More efficient technologies and higher oil prices led Ginko to try these wells again. Yitzhak Tshuva's Delek Group is a partner in the Dead Sea drilling project, as well as the major offshore exploration efforts. Lapidoth, one of a handful of former government-owned companies that were privatized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, carries out much of the drilling work for the other companies. Almost all of the usable oil discovered here was found in the Heletz field southeast of Ashkelon, from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. (Current production there is down to just 70 barrels a day, although the company that now controls the fields hopes to improve that figure to 200 or 300 barrels per day.) Although geologists from major foreign oil companies in the late 1970s and early 1980s estimated that Israel had as much as two billion barrels of oil waiting to be discovered, only 18 million barrels of oil have been produced since the founding of the state. Saudi Arabian oil wells, by way of comparison, produce more than that every two days. Where Israel has made waves recently is in the discovery of offshore natural gas deposits. The Delek Group and BG control massive gas fields off Ashkelon. This coming spring, according to Petroleum Commissioner Ya'acov Mimran, another possible large natural gas field will be drilled off Haifa, potentially adding to the NIS 100 million that the state currently receives as a royalty from the gas companies. A switch to natural gas power has helped decrease pollution as well as costs, Mimran says. The resource will make further inroads, he adds, as the state invests in a cross-country pipeline to transport gas to large industrial clients. The natural gas finds offer Israel a greater degree of energy security, another option in meeting its energy needs. That is something the government is very much interested in pursuing, Mimran says. After all, he says, "no sane country would put all its energy eggs in one basket." How much more, then, would oil flowing in the Jewish state improve the country's strategic position. Even if a major oil field were to be discovered here, though, it would not necessarily be easy for companies like Zion, Givot Olam or Ginko to exploit it. "One factor that needs to be recognized relative to Israel is the geopolitical aspect," says oil industry analyst Allen Mesch of Petro-Strategies, based in Plano, Texas. "That is, whether there would be any fallout for a major international oil company doing business there, from other oil producing nations in the Middle East. "I think that's something that would not be talked about in the board rooms of the major companies - at least not openly - but a company would have to ask whether their operations in Afghanistan, for example, would be affected by getting involved in Israel. One would be terribly naive if they didn't consider that." OIL EXPLORATION here has frequently been limited by technology and funding. What Zion has suffered from is a lack of equipment. Because most of the world's oil activity takes place in countries hostile to Israel, Zion has had to scrounge equipment and parts from Egypt, Italy, Germany - even as far away as China and Ukraine. It can't proceed with the expansion of the Ma'anit well because there is no oil rig in the entire country capable of doing the job. They won't be able to take delivery of one, Perry says, until at least May. So now, it would seem, it is a game of timing for Zion. If the company can drill its Ma'anit No. 2 well soon - and if there really is a large store of natural gas there - the company will have recorded a huge victory. A potential customer is already lined up for the bounty, a stone's throw away. Natural gas transportation pipelines are being constructed within a kilometer of the planned well. If not, and especially if expanding the first Ma'anit well does not gush forth with oil next summer, all those assertions of divine guidance could look shakier than ever. Thus far, Zion has raised interest - and funds - by asking the tantalizing question, "What if there is oil in Israel?" They're not prepared to ask the crushing question, "What if there isn't?" "I wouldn't want to put the Creator in a box," says Pierce. "I don't worry about failure." "You know how long David had to wait between being anointed king by Samuel and actually ruling in Jerusalem? Fourteen years. That's what we keep in mind about being patient," adds Perry. Analyst Mesch agrees that a long-term approach may be best. "You have to be careful about saying, 'Oh, there's nothing there,' because naysayers have been proven wrong," Mesch notes. "The oil and gas industry has so many stories of large companies leaving, and small companies coming in after them and finding or extracting oil. Success in the whole industry is a function of evolving technology and trying something new." For Brown, who remains steadfast in his belief that he will see oil flowing in the land of Zion, all that is necessary is to follow God's plan. "When the oil comes out," he says, "and they ask me how I got it, I'll say: I read the Tanach." A man of reckless faith John Brown knows that you think he's nuts. He's been hearing it for years. And frankly, he understands where you're coming from. "When you start telling people, 'God told me this' or 'God told me that' - let's be honest, it's pretty heavy-duty stuff," Brown says, speaking candidly during a recent visit. Ever since his born-again experience in 1981, he's been walking his own path. Although he was a successful executive for a thriving manufacturing company, Brown had struggled with alcoholism. "Being saved" changed all that. "I prayed a prayer, I felt the presence of God - and I knew in my life, that there was something that had happened... that I had had a transformation," he explains. His need to drink and to feed his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit instantly disappeared, Brown says, "as if God just took a big eraser and erased it out of my life." An encounter with evangelist preacher Jim Spillman and his Bible "treasure code" theories led Brown to quit his job, sending him on a journey into Torah study and trips to Israel. "I discovered the riches of Judaism," he says, quoting from Pirkei Avot and the commentary of Rashi. "The Torah is so rich that I can hardly think about it sometimes. I get emotional. It changes me." Listening to Torah tapes, and printing up pamphlets about the supposed oil prophecies in Genesis and Deuteronomy definitely put Brown outside the mainstream. "To the Christian community, I had lost my marbles. We were at the point where we weren't eating any non-kosher food. We were keeping Shabbat. My friends were saying, 'Man, you've gone nuts. Can't you just be a normal Christian?'" But the draw of seeing those prophecies fulfilled was too great and, in 1983, Brown made his first exploratory trip to Israel. "I went to Jerusalem, went to the Western Wall and put my hands on the wall and prayed... I had no idea where this was going. It wasn't like, 'Gee whiz, I want all this oil so I can be rich.' I wanted to help the people of Israel. The oil was just the tool to do it." Brown moved to Texas to learn more about the oil industry, continuing to spread the word while spending all his savings. Partly because of the scandals caused by incompetent wildcatters or swindlers with smooth talk of oil exploration in the Holy Land, Brown's attempts to stir up interest in an oil search were met with only a few hallelujahs and even less money. "I gave my whole career up, and spent all my money to chase this dream. There wasn't any overwhelming support for what I was doing - not in the Christian community, and not in the Jewish community," he recounts. "I had reckless faith," he says now. "Everything I had ever accumulated in life, I had given away." In 1996, at 55 and by then jobless for more than a decade, Brown did about the only thing he could: He returned to his home state of Michigan to help his son build a concrete business. "God did miracles with that company," Brown says of the explosive growth the firm enjoyed. And just as his life's trajectory was heading upward again, contacts from the Israeli oil scene began calling on him again, urging him to apply for a drilling permit. At that point, Brown admits, he was afraid to go through the hell of disappointment again, to risk getting nowhere and wasting money. But when Sedot Neft offered him the opportunity to take part in its work on the Ma'anit well, Brown couldn't say no. And when Sedot Neft ran out of money some three kilometers into its drilling efforts, Brown stepped in with Zion Oil & Gas to take over the license. Since then Brown has recruited a slew of oil veterans with bona-fide credentials - not only Glen Perry and Stephen Pierce but Yehezkel Druckman, Israel's previous petroleum commissioner, and Dr. Eliezer Kashai, a former president of the Israel Geological Society who has consulted for the national oil companies and others. "I don't ask anybody to buy stock because of my faith," says Brown. "They need to look at this company, look at the financial statements. They need to go by return on investment." The way most people would see it, there's no guarantee that Brown won't end up losing everything once more. But Brown, who doesn't use "if" when talking about finding oil, only "when," doesn't see things like most people do. "What will make me feel best of all," he says, "is that God will have taken someone with no abilities, no experience, and really, no desire - and He changed my heart and gave me an opportunity - one little person - to help the State of Israel."

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