Holy Land rocked by search for oil

Robin Pagnamenta Energy Editor
Last updated August 23 2010 12:01AM

Attempt to extract shale faces bitter opposition
An American-backed plan to extract oil shale from rocks beneath the Holy Land has triggered fierce opposition in Israel. The Union for Environmental Defence is seeking an injunction from the country’s Supreme Court to block the project, which intends to produce a type of crude from a vast deposit in the Adullam valley, west of Jerusalem. Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), a company funded by American Oil Shale, is spearheading the drive to develop some of the huge reserves of oil shale that exist in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Infrastructure estimates that “15 per cent of the country is underlain by oil shale beds”. The country, which imports all its oil, is thought to have 15 billion tonnes of the material — a type of rock rich in hydrocarbons — enough to supply Israel with fuel for about 50 years. But extracting oil shale and processing it into a useable fuel is an energy-intensive and environmentally fraught process. It has aroused vigorous opposition for its potential impact on the water table, local environment and high greenhouse gas emissions associated with production. Rachel Jacobson, a local resident, helped to form Save Adullam, the site where in Biblical times David slew Goliath. She said: “It’s a beautiful area and an exceedingly important historical site. The company has gained blanket rights to a very large area and they are under no obligation to submit an environmental impact study.” She said that the application to the Supreme Court questioned the legal grounds on which the licence was awarded. Relik Shafir, the chief executive of IEI, rejected the concerns. “The injunction has no basis and we expect the court to reject it,” he said, adding that the company was committed to “very stringent environmental measures”. He emphasised that IEI proposed using a new technology that would allow the oil shale to be extracted in situ, rather than by conventional strip mining. The method involves drilling horizontal wells deep underground that criss-cross the area beneath the deposit.

Heating elements are then inserted and, over several months, these are used to heat up the ground to as high as 300C (572F) to melt the hydrocarbons trapped inside the rock. They can then be pumped out as a heavy form of crude oil. “There will be no impact on aquifers and no ground disturbance,” Mr Shafir said. “All the heating elements are contained within the rock.” Warren Marland, another resident involved with the Save Adullam campaign, claimed that the technique was untested. He said: “The process has not been proven and they are asking us to be guinea pigs. “By covering the whole area with heating coils and infrastructure to produce oil, there is no way they can argue that it has no environmental impact.” Ms Jacobson said that heating the ground would release carbon dioxide emissions, a significant contributor to global warming. Mr Shafir said that IEI, which secured the licence to explore a 238 sq km (92 sq mile) tract of the Shfela basin in 2008, had started to explore for oil shale in the area and has plans to build a test project to produce 500 barrels of oil. Among the private investors involved in the company are Harold Vinegar, a former senior scientist with Royal Dutch Shell. He developed the so-called in situ technology, which is said to be less invasive, at a Shell site in Colorado. Israel’s rich oil shale deposits are being targeted as oil companies focus increasingly on “unconventional” sources of oil as traditional fields are depleted in the face of robust global demand. American Oil Shale is based in Newark, New Jersey, and is a subsidiary of IDT, a listed American company with interests in oil and telecoms. Israel’s conventional oil supplies are negligible. Overall, about 410 oil wells have been drilled in the country with little success. Three quarters of Israel’s oil comes from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the remainder being imported from West Africa, Egypt and Mexico. A study by Shell suggested that oil shale, a dark crumbly rock, could be processed into crude oil for between $20 and $30 a barrel, making it economically viable with oil prices at their present level of more than $70. Several other smaller oil shale projects are being developed in Israel, although none uses the same in situ extraction method that is being pursued by IEI. Shale is used as a fuel for power plants in Estonia, where the rock is burnt like coal to drive steam turbines.
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