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Israeli Oil Shale — The First Step Toward Energy Independence?

The resources are there. So is a phalanx of home-grown opposition.

oil shale, 7 July 2011 - photo by Judith Levy

This is a photograph I took on Thursday of a chunk of oil shale that had been dug up moments before from 400 meters below ground (1,300 feet, or a bit deeper than the height of the Empire State Building) at a drilling site in the Shfela Basin, southwest of Jerusalem. The shale’s surface is smooth and uniform, like a clay pot, and it has a uniquely earthy smell — something roughly between mud after a downpour, a distant barnyard, and a glass of Campo Viejo Rioja.

Notice the fossils. In the little caravan next to the drilling site, I had a look through a microscope at plankton that had been brought to the surface during drilling.

This chunk of shale is about 70 million years old. It’s part of a deposit with the potential to yield about 250 billion barrels, well beyond Israel’s domestic needs and amply sufficient to transform Israel into an oil exporter. Not far from the patch of land from which it was extracted is the cave of Adullam, in which David hid when he was running from King Saul.

There is a great deal to say about these resources, and I plan to give it to you in installments. For the time being I’ll call your attention to the resistance to the oil shale exploration, which falls roughly into two categories: anxious locals and angry environmentalists.

The locals are apprehensive — understandably — about the introduction of what they fear will be disruptive and destructive technology into a pristine, even idyllic landscape. The environmentalists object on principle to the extraction of fossil fuels, period, regardless of location, and regardless of the implications for Israel of energy independence — Gaia trumps the state, in other words.

Woven into the objections of both constituencies are elements that will be difficult to combat via pilot projects and feasibility studies: reflexive mistrust of the word of any government agency or representative, a residual socialist repugnance against any industry with the potential to create great wealth for individuals, and a zero-sum assumption that any progress that’s made on the oil front must, by definition, be at someone else’s expense.

I hope to speak directly with people on the opposition as well as with key figures in the exploration, which is being run by a company called IEI (Israel Energy Initiatives). I spent all of Thursday deep in conversation with IEI environmental engineer Dana Kadmiel, who gave me exhaustive data on the company’s technology. Stay tuned.