The making of a miracle

John Brown is waiting for a miracle. Expecting one, in
fact.

It’s all there, he says, laid out in the First Book of
Kings, Chapter 8, in an overlooked part of Solomon’s
prayer upon the dedication of the Temple: ‘Also a
gentile, who is not of Your people Israel, but will
come from a distant land, for Your name’s sake… and
will come and pray toward this Temple – may You hear
from heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and act
according to all that the gentile calls out to you, so
that all the people of the world may know Your
name…’

‘When I read those words, they pierce my heart,’ Brown
says, ‘for I am a gentile who has come to pray to the
Lord. And I know that when Solomon asks God to do
‘all’ that the gentile asks of Him, ‘all’ means oil.’

Brown, a born-again Christian, has spent the better
part of the past 25 years pursuing his belief that the
Bible points to vast petroleum deposits in the Holy
Land, and that God has sent him to find them.

‘Now, I know I’m not the only stranger whom God has
called to come to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem,’ he
says. ‘I mean, if you read Zechariah and Isaiah, there
are a lot of them. I’m just one of many that He has
created for this purpose.’

The purpose of Brown’s company, Zion Oil and Gas, is
to find the oil so that Israel can benefit
economically, strategically – and prophetically.

‘Zion’s purpose is not just to discover oil and help
Israel with its energy needs, but to contribute, if
possible, to the Jews’ return to Israel. Anything we
can do is, to me, God’s plan,’ Brown says. ‘It’s a
mitzva – and not because I’m trying to make Christians
out of them or anything like that, but because it’s
all part of God’s plan.’

What God has planned for Zion Oil and Gas is, at this
stage, unclear. The company launched a successful
initial public offering on the American Stock Exchange
in New York this spring. But shortly thereafter Brown
had to deliver the news to his shareholders at their
first meeting in Dallas that Zion’s Ma’anit No. 1 well
east of Caesarea had failed to produce the copious
amounts of oil he had assured them it would. That
hasn’t shaken the faith of the tall, broad-shouldered
67-year-old former manufacturing executive – or of his
staff, who are eagerly awaiting the expansion of the
Ma’anit well for what they believe will be a stunning
discovery.

Stephen Pierce, Zion’s chief geologist, wrote in a
2004 article in the Oil & Gas Journal that ‘Zion has a
strong probability of making a significant discovery
of some 484 million barrels of oil.’ To put that in
perspective: total oil production in Israel since 1955
hasn’t quite reached 18 million barrels.

IN 1981, JOHN BROWN found God. It was the same year
that Jim Spillman, an evangelical preacher, found oil
in four prophetic passages in the Bible.

Specifically: In Deuteronomy 32:13, Moses says,
somewhat cryptically: ‘[God] would suckle him with
honey from a stone, and oil from a flinty rock.’
Although most commentators and Bible scholars assume
this is a poetic reference to wild bees’ nests in rock
crevices and date palms sprouting from scraggly
ground, Spillman claims it is instead meant to reflect
an oil rig pumping black gold from a well. But where
is this treasure?

One clue, according to Spillman, lies in Jacob’s
blessing to Joseph in Genesis 49:25, when he says that
God ‘will bless you with blessings of heaven from
above, blessings of the deep crouching below.’
Similarly, in Deuteronomy 33:13, Moses blesses Joseph,
saying, ‘His land is a blessing of God, with the
sweetness of the heavens’ dew and of the deep
crouching below.’

Scholars understand the blessing invoked here to be
water, citing a parallel structure between dew from
the skies and flowing wells. Spillman, however, sees
the ‘blessings of the deep crouching below,’ again, as
oil.

The other clue follows in Deuteronomy 33:24: ‘And to
Asher he said, Blessed among the sons is Asher. He
shall be accepted by his brothers, and dip his foot in
oil.’ Rather than assume the oil in question is olive
oil, which was commonly used for anointing and would
be used for dipping in a lavish display of wealth,
Spillman insists that here, too, the Bible is speaking
of petroleum. And that where the southernmost tip of
the territory apportioned to Asher – which is shaped
like a foot – borders the territory of Joseph’s
firstborn son Menashe, there must be oil.

Zion does not rely merely on Scripture, however. In
part, it was lucky: The Ma’anit well, in what Zion
calls its Joseph License, was first drilled in 1994 by
Sedot Neft. That company had to abandon the well when
it ran out of funds. Zion moved in afterward.

The company also relies on science. Says geologist
Pierce, ‘John points his finger to the spot on the map
where his faith tells him to look. I put my finger on
the same spot on the map because of where my science
tells me to look.’

Pierce is certainly familiar with the location. Right
around the same time that Spillman was publishing his
theories on the Bible’s petroleum prophecies, Pierce
was in Israel to perform some analysis work for
Superior Oil (later to be purchased by Mobil Oil),
contracted by the state. Five years ago, when he heard
about Zion’s search for oil in Israel, Pierce
contacted the company and basically insisted on
heading up the geological work.

At Zion’s offices in Caesarea, Pierce pores over pages
of data and sheets of squiggly lines, running for
meters along the wall, that tell him about the makeup
of the rock layers thousands of meters into the earth.
Seismic acquisition equipment making its way back to
Israel from a project in Angola will soon scan some 60
kilometers of land in Zion’s license area, adding more
data that Zion hopes will unlock the secrets of the
‘deep crouching below.’

OUT IN THE FIELD, the earth’s secrets remain locked
away. Four hundred meters from the road, marked only
by a small sign next to a rough path worn in the mud,
the well that Zion proudly unveiled this spring now
sits covered by a massive concrete cap.

If there really is oil waiting to be discovered by the
Zion crew, it is proving elusive. Despite millions of
dollars spent and a well drilled almost five
kilometers into the earth, Zion has gathered what it
says are promising signs, but there have been no sales
yet, no claims of proven reserves.

‘It’s a long process,’ notes Richard Rinberg, Zion’s
CEO. ‘It’s not like the Clampetts of The Beverly
Hillbillies, where you go out into your backyard, fire
your rifle into the ground and oil comes gushing up,
making you a multimillionaire.’ Drilling a well is an
expensive, time- consuming endeavor that requires
feats of engineering the likes of which Israel has
rarely seen.

‘Imagine you’re up in an aircraft at an altitude of
30,000 feet,’ says Rinberg. ‘Now imagine a single
continuous pipeline going halfway down to the ground.
Technologically, and from a cost point of view, it’s
very difficult.’

Mechanical difficulties have killed numerous other oil
exploration efforts here, and they may yet do the same
to Zion. After hitting a snag in the Ma’anit well at a
depth of about four kilometers, Zion now wants to
reenter the well and, at a depth of about 3.5 km.,
turn a drill about 20 degrees outward and dig
sideways. They want to forge their way down to a depth
of almost 6 km., ending up about 800 meters northeast
of the well’s surface location. That’s where they
believe they can tap into the ancient Permian rock
layer and find their hydrocarbon bounty.

‘Worldwide, the Permian is one of the greatest oil
producers… and it looks very promising here in
Israel, particularly northern Israel,’ says Zion
president Glen Perry, an old-time Texas oil man who
joined Zion after rehabilitating wells in Siberia and
the Republic of Georgia.

‘Every well that has been drilled to the Permian
formation in Israel has seen some type of either oil
or gas show. All the science indicates that there is
gas in there,’ Perry says. ‘The problem has been
finding rock that has enough holes in it that the gas
is commercial. That is what we’re looking for. Our
indications are that we will have greater porosity
than we have seen in the other wells. Then we hope to
enhance that by getting into an area where the rock is
cracked. Where you have these cracks, the gas will
flow much, much better.’

Of 470 wells drilled here since 1955, only a quarter
have been of commercial interest, and only those in
the Negev’s Heletz fields have produced more than a
trickle of oil. But that doesn’t tell the whole story,
Perry insists.

Only eight wells have been drilled to a considerable
depth in the North, and all of them, Perry notes, have
returned ‘shows’ of oil or gas that warrant further
exploration. Besides, he says, ‘Texas has more than
356,000 producing wells today, of some 2.5 million
that have been drilled. Comparatively, the Zion Oil
and Gas license area is ‘virgin territory.”

THE ZION OIL AND GAS story is strikingly similar to
those of several other prominent born-again Christian
oilmen who drilled in Israel based on their
interpretation of various biblical passages: Gilman
Hill, Andy Sorelle, Jr., Hayseed Stephens and Lyle
Harron. All invested millions, and all came up with
nothing. (Interestingly, though, a possibly commercial
amount of oil was discovered last year near the Dead
Sea, in the same general area where Stephens said God
told him there would be oil.)

There is also Jewish-owned drilling spurred on by the
same biblical passages that motivated the above
companies, in the form of Tovia Luskin’s Givot Olam.
The Russian-born geophysicist started drilling near
Rosh Ha’ayin (the ‘Meged’ wells) after receiving a
blessing from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like Zion
Oil and Gas, Givot Olam intends to drill down to a
depth of five kilometers and, also like Zion, the
company is scrounging for a rig capable of doing so.

Ginko, another Israeli company, struck oil west of the
Dead Sea, with wells (named ‘Tzuk Tamrur’ and
‘Emunah’) that were deemed uneconomical a decade ago.
More efficient technologies and higher oil prices led
Ginko to try these wells again.

Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Group is a partner in the Dead
Sea drilling project, as well as the major offshore
exploration efforts. Lapidoth, one of a handful of
former government-owned companies that were privatized
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, carries out much of
the drilling work for the other companies.

Almost all of the usable oil discovered here was found
in the Heletz field southeast of Ashkelon, from the
mid- 1950s to the early 1970s. (Current production
there is down to just 70 barrels a day, although the
company that now controls the fields hopes to improve
that figure to 200 or 300 barrels per day.)

Although geologists from major foreign oil companies
in the late 1970s and early 1980s estimated that
Israel had as much as two billion barrels of oil
waiting to be discovered, only 18 million barrels of
oil have been produced since the founding of the
state. Saudi Arabian oil wells, by way of comparison,
produce more than that every two days.

Where Israel has made waves recently is in the
discovery of offshore natural gas deposits. The Delek
Group and BG control massive gas fields off Ashkelon.

This coming spring, according to Petroleum
Commissioner Ya’acov Mimran, another possible large
natural gas field will be drilled off Haifa,
potentially adding to the NIS 100 million that the
state currently receives as a royalty from the gas
companies.

A switch to natural gas power has helped decrease
pollution as well as costs, Mimran says. The resource
will make further inroads, he adds, as the state
invests in a cross-country pipeline to transport gas
to large industrial clients.

The natural gas finds offer Israel a greater degree of
energy security, another option in meeting its energy
needs. That is something the government is very much
interested in pursuing, Mimran says. After all, he
says, ‘no sane country would put all its energy eggs
in one basket.’

How much more, then, would oil flowing in the Jewish
state improve the country’s strategic position. Even
if a major oil field were to be discovered here,
though, it would not necessarily be easy for companies
like Zion, Givot Olam or Ginko to exploit it.

‘One factor that needs to be recognized relative to
Israel is the geopolitical aspect,’ says oil industry
analyst Allen Mesch of Petro-Strategies, based in
Plano, Texas. ‘That is, whether there would be any
fallout for a major international oil company doing
business there, from other oil producing nations in
the Middle East.

‘I think that’s something that would not be talked
about in the board rooms of the major companies – at
least not openly – but a company would have to ask
whether their operations in Afghanistan, for example,
would be affected by getting involved in Israel. One
would be terribly naive if they didn’t consider that.’
OIL EXPLORATION here has frequently been limited by
technology and funding. What Zion has suffered from is
a lack of equipment. Because most of the world’s oil
activity takes place in countries hostile to Israel,
Zion has had to scrounge equipment and parts from
Egypt, Italy, Germany – even as far away as China and
Ukraine. It can’t proceed with the expansion of the
Ma’anit well because there is no oil rig in the entire
country capable of doing the job. They won’t be able
to take delivery of one, Perry says, until at least
May.

So now, it would seem, it is a game of timing for
Zion. If the company can drill its Ma’anit No. 2 well
soon – and if there really is a large store of natural
gas there – the company will have recorded a huge
victory. A potential customer is already lined up for
the bounty, a stone’s throw away. Natural gas
transportation pipelines are being constructed within
a kilometer of the planned well. If not, and
especially if expanding the first Ma’anit well does
not gush forth with oil next summer, all those
assertions of divine guidance could look shakier than
ever.

Thus far, Zion has raised interest – and funds – by
asking the tantalizing question, ‘What if there is oil
in Israel?’ They’re not prepared to ask the crushing
question, ‘What if there isn’t?’

‘I wouldn’t want to put the Creator in a box,’ says
Pierce. ‘I don’t worry about failure.’

‘You know how long David had to wait between being
anointed king by Samuel and actually ruling in
Jerusalem? Fourteen years. That’s what we keep in mind
about being patient,’ adds Perry.

Analyst Mesch agrees that a long-term approach may be
best.

‘You have to be careful about saying, ‘Oh, there’s
nothing there,’ because naysayers have been proven
wrong,’ Mesch notes. ‘The oil and gas industry has so
many stories of large companies leaving, and small
companies coming in after them and finding or
extracting oil. Success in the whole industry is a
function of evolving technology and trying something
new.’

For Brown, who remains steadfast in his belief that he
will see oil flowing in the land of Zion, all that is
necessary is to follow God’s plan.

‘When the oil comes out,’ he says, ‘and they ask me
how I got it, I’ll say: I read the Tanach.’

(BOX) A man of reckless faith

John Brown knows that you think he’s nuts. He’s been
hearing it for years. And frankly, he understands
where you’re coming from.

‘When you start telling people, ‘God told me this’ or
‘God told me that’ – let’s be honest, it’s pretty
heavy- duty stuff,’ Brown says, speaking candidly
during a recent visit.

Ever since his born-again experience in 1981, he’s
been walking his own path.

Although he was a successful executive for a thriving
manufacturing company, Brown had struggled with
alcoholism. ‘Being saved’ changed all that.

‘I prayed a prayer, I felt the presence of God – and I
knew in my life, that there was something that had
happened… that I had had a transformation,’ he
explains.

His need to drink and to feed his two-pack-a-day
cigarette habit instantly disappeared, Brown says, ‘as
if God just took a big eraser and erased it out of my
life.’ An encounter with evangelist preacher Jim
Spillman and his Bible ‘treasure code’ theories led
Brown to quit his job, sending him on a journey into
Torah study and trips to Israel.

‘I discovered the riches of Judaism,’ he says, quoting
from Pirkei Avot and the commentary of Rashi. ‘The
Torah is so rich that I can hardly think about it
sometimes. I get emotional. It changes me.’

Listening to Torah tapes, and printing up pamphlets
about the supposed oil prophecies in Genesis and
Deuteronomy definitely put Brown outside the
mainstream.

‘To the Christian community, I had lost my marbles. We
were at the point where we weren’t eating any
non-kosher food. We were keeping Shabbat. My friends
were saying, ‘Man, you’ve gone nuts. Can’t you just be
a normal Christian?”

But the draw of seeing those prophecies fulfilled was
too great and, in 1983, Brown made his first
exploratory trip to Israel.

‘I went to Jerusalem, went to the Western Wall and put
my hands on the wall and prayed… I had no idea where
this was going. It wasn’t like, ‘Gee whiz, I want all
this oil so I can be rich.’ I wanted to help the
people of Israel. The oil was just the tool to do it.’
Brown moved to Texas to learn more about the oil
industry, continuing to spread the word while spending
all his savings. Partly because of the scandals caused
by incompetent wildcatters or swindlers with smooth
talk of oil exploration in the Holy Land, Brown’s
attempts to stir up interest in an oil search were met
with only a few hallelujahs and even less money.

‘I gave my whole career up, and spent all my money to
chase this dream. There wasn’t any overwhelming
support for what I was doing – not in the Christian
community, and not in the Jewish community,’ he
recounts.

‘I had reckless faith,’ he says now. ‘Everything I had
ever accumulated in life, I had given away.’

In 1996, at 55 and by then jobless for more than a
decade, Brown did about the only thing he could: He
returned to his home state of Michigan to help his son
build a concrete business.

‘God did miracles with that company,’ Brown says of
the explosive growth the firm enjoyed. And just as his
life’s trajectory was heading upward again, contacts
from the Israeli oil scene began calling on him again,
urging him to apply for a drilling permit.

At that point, Brown admits, he was afraid to go
through the hell of disappointment again, to risk
getting nowhere and wasting money. But when Sedot Neft
offered him the opportunity to take part in its work
on the Ma’anit well, Brown couldn’t say no. And when
Sedot Neft ran out of money some three kilometers into
its drilling efforts, Brown stepped in with Zion Oil &
Gas to take over the license.

Since then Brown has recruited a slew of oil veterans
with bona-fide credentials – not only Glen Perry and
Stephen Pierce but Yehezkel Druckman, Israel’s
previous petroleum commissioner, and Dr. Eliezer
Kashai, a former president of the Israel Geological
Society who has consulted for the national oil
companies and others.

‘I don’t ask anybody to buy stock because of my
faith,’ says Brown. ‘They need to look at this
company, look at the financial statements. They need
to go by return on investment.’

The way most people would see it, there’s no guarantee
that Brown won’t end up losing everything once more.
But Brown, who doesn’t use ‘if’ when talking about
finding oil, only ‘when,’ doesn’t see things like most
people do.

‘What will make me feel best of all,’ he says, ‘is
that God will have taken someone with no abilities, no
experience, and really, no desire – and He changed my
heart and gave me an opportunity – one little person –
to help the State of Israel.’

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