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Israeli Geologist Drills for Oil Based on Biblical Guidance - 2002-11-19


A geologist has turned to the Bible in search of oil riches in the Holy Land. The prospector has begun drilling his third oil well with a little guidance from God.

A modern monument to one man's faith in the Almighty has been erected at a crossroads of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rising above the narrow, flat, coastal plain at Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv, on the edge of the West Bank and in sight of the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, is a towering oil rig.

Geologist Tovia Luskin is drilling for one of the world's most precious resources with the belief that God is his guide. His decision to leave a comfortable life in Australia was sparked by his reading of a biblical passage from the book of Deuteronomy, and a commentary on it by the venerated Jewish scholar Rashi. More than a decade ago, Mr. Luskin, an exiled Soviet Jew who had only recently become religious, was studying the Bible while working for an oil company in Australia.

He came across a passage that he thought was full of geological meaning. Moses, before dying, blesses the tribe of Joseph (Deuteronomy 33:13-15). In the passage, Moses asks God to bless Joseph's land with, among other things, "the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills."

Mr. Luskin's eyes sparkle as he recites the passage and tugs at a graying beard that makes him look more like a rabbi than a geologist. The area bequeathed to the tribe of Joseph includes land in northern Israel, northeast of Tel Aviv, and Mr. Luskin began to wonder what the "choicest gifts" from "ancient mountains" could be. In the commentaries of Rashi, a medieval Jewish sage, he found a hypothesis that the passage was actually talking about hills formed before the present landscape. It was a startling discovery because this seemed to point to a modern geological concept, something not in the grasp of Rashi who lived about 800 years ago, nor Moses in ancient times.

"This was very puzzling for me," Mr. Luskin said. "It was very strange that someone would think thousands of years ago that one mountain was created before other mountains. It is a base of geology, a fundamental principle of geology."

He went to New York City in May 1990, to consult Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was then leader of a branch of Hasidic Judaism, a very religious sect.

"He gave me a blessing for this project and he said it would be successful and soon," Tovia Luskin said. "And with this, of course, I immediately start selling my house in Sydney and moved to Israel" more than 12 years ago.

So he moved to Israel and founded a company called Givot Olam, Everlasting Hills. More than a decade of hard work, two wells and millions of dollars later, he believes the efforts have paid off with the discovery of what he calls "oil and gas accumulation, capable of commercial exploitation." He estimates there are 65 million barrels of oil in this part of Northern Israel. Mr. Luskin says the oil field in Israel is part of the Middle East's paleozoic petroleum system, the world's major oil and gas producing region that he says extends down from Syria. He believes most other wells drilled in Israel to date failed because they were in the southern Negev Desert, which lies outside the area he is tapping. Australian drilling consultant Peter Dwyer oversees the drilling operation of Mr. Luskins' company.

"One in 10 exploration wells [on average] is successful. That has not eventuated here in Israel. But Givot Olam is drilling on a totally different structure than anybody else has drilled here in Israel"

Mr. Dwyer, who has been with the project since 1994, says this third Givot Olam well, which he began drilling last month, will go down more than four kilometers. That is not the deepest drilling in the world but it shows exploration is clearly harder in Israel than other parts of the region.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the oil sheikhs began producing from areas just 500 meters below the surface.

Mr. Dwyer says the critical moment in this operation will come when the new well is much deeper under ground.

"It is just a matter of drilling as fast and cost efficiently as we can, until we get to the real meat of the well at 4,100 meters. That's when it's show and tell time."

The effort has many doubters, including some in the Israeli government. The company had to get an endorsement from a Canadian oil exploration firm to convince the government to extend its drilling license and allow for the third well. Now, Tovia Luskin believes it's only a matter of time before his biblical inspiration yields the "choice gifts" promised in Deuteronomy.

And Mr. Luskin is not the only man driven by divine inspiration to search for oil in the Holy Land. A few years ago, Harold "Hayseed" Stephens, a Christian oilman from Texas, began exploring on the edge of the Dead Sea. His site is the area where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood.

He believes that the book of Genesis identifies these towns famous as dens of iniquity as places where one might strike it rich in oil.

Like Mr. Luskin, history will one day judge him as a visionary or a dreamer.

But Israel is, after all, a land of miracles, and Mr. Luskin is hoping his prayers will soon be answered.

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