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Shale: A key to Israel’s energy future

The Haifa oil refinery. Credit: Avishai Teicher/PikiWiki Israel.
The Haifa oil refinery. Credit: Avishai Teicher/PikiWiki Israel.

Israel soon will be producing natural gas from fields in the Mediterranean in sufficient quantity to replace all of the coal and gas the country needs for its electrical power production and for fueling industry—with an additional 30 percent left for export. But while natural gas may be sufficient to fulfill domestic needs for the next 40 years, the government of Israel has sensibly decided that solar power—both photovoltaic (“PV”) plants and concentrating solar power (“CSP”)—should be part of the nation’s energy mix, providing an additional pollution-free source of electrical power whenever the sun is shining.

Given these enormous offshore natural gas resources and the solar energy projects that are being pursued, why, then, does it remain important for Israel to develop its shale resources?

To understand that need, it first is crucial to clarify that, while the undersea sandstone formations in which Israel’s gas is entrapped are overlain with shale, these offshore sites are not what are meant when people talk about Israel’s “shale” deposits—particularly since Israel’s offshore gas is being recovered by “conventional” means rather than using more complex technologies usually needed for producing fossil fuels from shale. Instead, when people speak of Israel’s shale they are referring to two onshore sites, one in the center of Israel near Beit Shemesh (the “Shfela Basin”) and the other in the Golan.

Moreover, rather than containing predominantly natural gas (like Israel’s offshore fields or like the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and New York State)—both these onshore sites are likely to deliver a quite different and distinct mix of fossil fuels that will be of particular importance for fueling transportation, rather than for generating electricity. Specifically, the Golan site is thought to contain predominantly oil. Meanwhile, the site in the center of the country (in the Shfela Basin) contains fossil fuels in a different form altogether: hydrocarbons bound to the shale rock.

Although some opponents of development there have raised a cry against “fracking” at this site, the reality is that is “fracking” is not being contemplated, nor would it be useful in freeing these hydrocarbons. Instead, the developers of the Shfela Basin site have devised an entirely new suite of far more benign technologies that would heat the rock (“oil shale”) gradually over a period of years to free the hydrocarbons. They have estimated that there is as much as 250 billion barrels of oil in place in the Shfela, much of which could be recovered economically using these methods… nearly as much oil as in all of Saudi Arabia!

The obvious question people have raised is why, with an enormous abundance of natural gas and solar power, Israel should even bother to develop these “shale oil” and “oil shale” resources—however much oil they may contain. For those who understand the geopolitical importance of oil, the answer is obvious: oil is a strategic commodity without which the industrialized world could not operate. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran have enormous political power because of the oil they can provide to Europe or to China, and because of the monopoly power that they have, as members of OPEC, to embargo the supply of oil to anyone who doesn’t toe their political line.

Moreover, the enormous wealth they have gained by selling oil is at the root of a great deal of the evil in this world—permitting Saudi Arabia to field one of the world’s largest military forces and enabling Iran to finance both terrorism and the development of its nuclear capabilities.

Furthermore, by developing an onshore oil industry, Israel will generate very significant tax and royalty revenues and high-quality, high-paying jobs, all of which will benefit the average Israeli citizen.

One obvious question that remains is, if solar energy can be part of the solution for Israel’s own energy needs, why can’t Israel use solar—rather than develop its shale resources—to help the world reduce its dependence on oil? The reason that approach isn’t viable is that solar can be an alternative to fuels such as coal or natural gas only to the extent that it can replace those fossil fuels for producing electrical power. But because virtually no oil is used for producing electricity in the industrialized world, solar can do nothing to replace oil. In fact, rather than being used for generating electricity, more than 60 percent of oil used worldwide is consumed, instead, to produce liquid transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel), while most of the rest is used as a feedstock for manufacturing petrochemicals. So, to repeat the point: because solar cannot be used to fuel cars, trucks or buses or as the feedstock for plastics and fertilizer, it is pretty much useless when it comes to replacing oil.

When we consider whether it is worthwhile to develop Israel’s shale resources, it is important to stress that the Government of Israel has declared that reducing the world’s dependence on OPEC oil is of strategic importance to Israel. And so, it has established a special division in the Prime Minister’s office to mount a government-wide effort to help the world find alternatives for fueling transportation (including advanced biofuels, natural gas, and electric vehicle technologies).

But until these transportation alternatives become widespread, it remains strategically and economically important for Israel to develop its oil shale and shale oil resources.

Neil Goldstein is Executive VP of The Israel Energy Partnership, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for a Secure America. Previously, as Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, he played the seminal role devising and successfully working for enactment of the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Program which funds joint U.S.-Israel research into solar, wind and other alternative energy technologies. Earlier, Mr. Goldstein served as Executive Director of Citizens for Clean Air and as the Sierra Club Representative in New York.

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