KIBBUTZ MAANIT, Israel — John Brown believes he’ll find oil in central Israel, although he has no scientific data or particular experience in the drilling business on which to base that.
The Dallas native is a relative novice in the energy industry. He says he’ll find oil because his reading of the Bible tells him it’s right here — under Maanit, an inland plain northeast of Tel Aviv, where he began drilling last month.
“God sent me for one purpose: to help Israel with oil,” says Brown, a born-again Christian, as he leafs through his Bible.
Brown says he received divine inspiration, starting his company, Zion Oil, to help Israel become energy-independent. “I believe God talked to me.”
Zion’s geologist, Stephen Pierce, and drilling manager, Stacy Cude, have decades of oil experience and plenty of discoveries under their belts for major producers such as Shell and Superior, now part of ExxonMobil. Like their boss, they also are born-again Christians, but they say there is science to support their faith in the project.
The skeptics “are going to have a hard time once the oil comes,” Brown predicts.
Oil would be a boon
Any oil find could be an economic and political boost to Israel, which is tantalizingly close to some of the world’s biggest producers — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq — but friendly with none of them.
Many Christian evangelicals from America are ardent political supporters of Israel and active in trying to convert Jews to Christianity in preparation for what they believe will be the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world. Brown is not the first evangelical wildcatter to drill in the Jewish state.
Since 1947, 470 wells have been drilled, including one by another American evangelical on Brown’s site. None of the projects has led to a significant oil discovery.
Natural gas is another matter. There have been finds of natural gas in Israeli territorial waters in the Mediterranean, and one in waters off the coast of Gaza.
Maanit possesses geologic characteristics that make it intriguing. A 2004 article in the leading industry publication Oil & Gas Journal said of a nearby site: “Israel has what appears to be its first substantial onshore oil and gas discovery.”
The most promising indicator, according to Pierce, is the presence of a Triassic-era reef deep below the surface. Like ocean reefs, geologic reefs resemble giant sponges. Their cavities and pockets can be full of oil. This one was formed more than 200 million years ago.
In the same issue of Oil & Gas Journal, Pierce, who was not working for Zion at the time, wrote an article outlining the potential of the Maanit site. He discussed three reefs that occupy 14,000 acres where Zion is now exploring.
Pierce’s conclusion: “Zion has a strong probability of making a significant discovery of some 484 million barrels of oil.”
Philip Mandelker, Zion Oil’s general counsel, says U.S. regulatory rules prevent the company from speculating about the amount of oil it could find at Maanit.
Still, a find of the size described by Pierce would barely be a blip in global oil reserves. Papua New Guinea, Uzbekistan and Tunisia all have reserves roughly the size described in Pierce’s article.
But any find could make a difference to Israel. The Jewish state imports its oil — three-quarters coming from Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union. The rest comes from West Africa, Egypt and Mexico, says Ina Shinman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures.
Five years of supply
The U.S. Energy Information Administration put Israeli oil consumption at 279,000 barrels a day for 2003, the most recent year available. A find of 484 million recoverable barrels would provide the country with enough oil for nearly five years.
Michael Izady, a Pace University Middle East expert, says a discovery of that size normally wouldn’t make the field worthy of exploration. Israel might be one of the few places such a small amount of oil is worth exploiting. “It will have absolutely no impact on the international oil market, but it would be helpful to that beleaguered country’s need for energy,” Izady says.
Brown’s quest began in 1981, two months after his conversion from Catholicism to born-again Christianity. He heard Jim Spillman, an American evangelist, speak about a “treasure map in the Bible.” Brown says he had initial reservations, but Spillman, now deceased, “put a map on the overhead projector and traced the thing.”
The first biblical signs of oil are in Genesis 49:25, Brown says. The verse says God “shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above (and) blessings of the deep that lieth under …” It is the “blessings of the deep” that are a reference to oil, Brown says.
Other Christian evangelicals who have rallied to Israel’s cause view the prophesied oil as a potential weapon in the Jewish state’s battle against hostile neighbors. Jan Willem van der Hoeven, director of the International Christian Zionist Center in Jerusalem, says the Genesis verse is an ominous reference to Arab oil producers. “The ‘deep beneath’ verse is a sign of hope God will smash back in the face of those who use oil as a weapon,” van der Hoeven says.
At Maanit, Brown says, Genesis is not the only guide. Deuteronomy 33:24 also points the way with the words “let Asher be blessed with children … and let him dip his foot in oil.”
Brown’s laminated map of ancient tribal territories shows Asher, a son of Jacob, occupying a strip along the northern coast, between modern-day Acco and Hadera. “You see the foot?” he asks, pointing to a foot-like tip of land along the Mediterranean. “Our license is just below that. See, he’s dipping his foot in oil.”
‘Treasure map’ verses
On Brown’s first trip to Israel after seeing the Spillman map, he says, God guided him to the “treasure map” verses. He left his $200,000-a-year job as executive at an industrial tool company in Michigan. He traveled to Jerusalem and went to the Western Wall to pray for oil in the Holy Land. It was the first of what would be more than 50 trips here.
Since then, he estimates, Zion has spent more than $350,000 on the project, much of it in license fees to the Israeli government.
Brown emphasizes he is not affiliated with Christian Zionists. In the USA, some of these groups lobby Washington on Israel’s behalf. In Israel, they run social programs and seek to convert Jews.
Some evangelical Christians, many of them American, believe they can bring about the apocalyptic end time described in the New Testament book of Revelation.
These Christians believe that once all Jews have returned to an Israel restored to its biblical borders, Jesus will return and all Christians will go to heaven.
“I’m not running around saying Jesus is coming, and I’m not trying to convert people,” says Brown, who wears a Jewish Star of David and plans to stop drilling every week for the Jewish Sabbath.
With oil prices near $50 a barrel, Maanit could bring in more than $24 billion if it panned out.
Brown says he plans to give his profits away to charities in the USA and Israel.
“That’s why God gives you wealth, I believe,” he says. “To help others.”