Bible-quoting Texas oilman wants to tap holy land

Divine inspiration leads to Mount Sodom to strengthen Israel

July 27, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOUNT SODOM, Israel -- Divine inspiration brought Harold "Hayseed" Stephens to this mountain of salt overlooking the Dead Sea. Here, on the parched bedrock of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, the 61-year-old Texas oilman expects to strike it rich.

Oil, my friends. Black crude. A gusher to transform the Jewish state into a master of its own energy needs and to fulfill the biblical prophesies Stephens quotes on cue.

A burly, born-again Christian, he fancies Stetson hats, ostrich-skin boots and belt buckles bearing his company name: Ness Energy International Inc.

Ness is the Hebrew word for miracle.

Stephens' company is among a handful of businesses licensed by Israel to drill for oil or natural gas in the arid expanse of the Negev Desert and off Israel's Mediterranean coast. His firm joins Isramco Inc., Givat Olam and a joint venture of two Israeli firms and two U.S. companies. Industry giant, British Gas (BG.L), recently received permits to drill for oil and gas in the waters off Israel.

Oil exploration in Israel predates the 1948 founding of the state. Past exploration failed to discover an oil field to match the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia, Oman and other Persian Gulf countries. The British, who ruled Palestine before 1948, discovered the only significant oil to date, a midsized field near Ashkelon, dubbed Heletz-1.

The field has produced 18 million barrels of oil since its discovery in 1956, said Yehezkeel Druckman, Israel's oil commissioner. But Israel needs at least 60 million barrels of oil annually, he said.

The state of Israel participated in the search for oil until 1985. Now, the leases are all privately held. In 1991, Isramco found oil off shore, about 10 miles west of the Israeli city of Ashdod. A test of the well showed it would produce 800 barrels of oil a day, said Druckman, who works in Israel's National Infrastructure Ministry.

"Eight hundred barrels is a wonderful well on shore," said Druckman. "But if it's off shore, that is not enough. You need 2,000 to 3,000 barrels a day to make it profitable. Nobody is after the oil; they're after the money."

Israel considers natural gas

Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt required the Jewish state to return the Sinai peninsula, a major source of oil for Israel. In exchange, Israel was guaranteed 12 million barrels of oil from Egypt and until 1996 Egypt actually provided as much half of Israel's oil supply, according to Yoav Armoni, a ministry official.

Since then, changes in Egypt's crude-oil standards led Israel to look elsewhere for its oil. Of the 88.1 million barrels of oil imported in 1998, Israel bought about 20 percent from Egypt, 42 percent from Russia, 27 percent from West Africa, 2 percent from Mexico and 10 percent from others, Armoni said.

Israel, however, is looking to convert from oil and coal to natural gas because it is cheaper and cleaner, said Druckman, the oil commissioner. Most of the oil and natural gas interests today are off shore, Druckman said. There are only three leases to drill on land.

"We have very great hopes for both gas and oil to be discovered off shore," said Druckman. "The geological conditions there seem to be favorable for both gas and oil traps."

Searching for right spot

Eliyahu Rosenberg is one Israeli oil executive who is concentrating his efforts on natural gas. A joint venture involving his Avner Oil Co. discovered a potentially lucrative natural gas find 22 miles off the coast of the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

In theory, Rosenberg said, Israel has sediments that can produce oil.

"But you have to find the right place where you don't have the adverse affects of temperature and breaks in sedimentation," said the 71-year-old geologist.

Stephens is counting on his patch of salt rock at the foot of Mount Sodom to produce a millennium gusher. He has it on good authority, a higher authority.

Stephens, the son of Texas sharecroppers, went to work in the oil fields of west Texas in 1958 and says he led a fast and loose life until Jan. 16, 1978.

"I had an experience with God just like Saul on the road to Damascus," he said in a telephone interview from his office in Willow Park, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. "I got beside my bed and he touched me, and in one instant I was literally transformed."

Stephens founded the Living Way Church. He spent two years preaching and then returned to his west-central Texas business, Hayseed Stephens Oil Inc., a privately held oil and gas producer. He came to Israel for the first time in 1982 with 11 other Christian businessmen who met and prayed with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Message to the heart

"That trip in May of '82 literally changed my life." said Stephens. "It was there that God spoke to my heart and told me where the oil was, how deep I was going to have to drill, how much it would cost, that it would be underneath the salt. It would be oil and not gas, that when it would come, it would be a well that would deliver Israel from economic bondage."

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