Texas oilman on a mission to find a Dead Sea gusher

JERUSALEM — If all goes according to schedule, Hayseed Stephens will soon be blessed with one of the biggest oil rigs in the world as it is unloaded at the Ashdod port en route to the southern shores of the Dead Sea.

There, Stephens, a Texan oilman and born-again Christian, plans to begin drilling more than 30,000 feet into the earth's crust for the massive deposits of oil he believes God directed him toward 15 years ago.

If the black gold begins gushing forth, Stephens will keep all of his personal profits in the state of Israel. Many Jews, he hopes, will then begin to believe in Jesus.

"Our goal is to begin drilling on the first day of the year 2000," Stephens said. "We know it's there, and when it comes this will be the greatest oil boom the world has ever known."

At first glance, it is easy to write off Stephens as another colorful, but perhaps slightly crazy, millennialist Christian arriving in Israel in anticipation of what some believe will be the return of Jesus.

Wearing his ostrich-skin cowboy boots, dungarees and an oversized sterling silver rodeo belt buckle bearing his company logo — a Bible sprouting gushers and a map of Israel — Stephens is a walking symbol for God and oil.

But Stephens is not a typical oilman or a typical evangelical Christian. He has invested 15 years of his life and 56 trips to Israel to carry out his $30 million dream project that he hopes will yield profits many times that size to boost Israel's economy.

Stephens is a wildcatter, an oilman who invests in risky drilling projects, sometimes against the better judgment of geologists, and he has been successful before. In this case, Israeli geologists have confirmed that there could be huge oil reserves where Stephens plans to dig. However, the odds of actually finding them are slim.

Not so, insists Stephens, if you are being guided by God's hand.

"We know Scripture has multiple meanings, but to me that means oil. Ezekiel — who is a perfectly good prophet — said I will return the fortunes of Sodom and Gomorrah," he says.

"Sodom and Gomorrah were the first oil boom towns in the world," he says in a Southern drawl with the flair of a Bible Belt preacher, describing how he thinks those ancient towns traded in oil, which they used for light and heat. "God wanted to keep the oil hidden from the world, and I can prove that."

Firing off references to several biblical passages, Stephens insists confidently that oil is there and he will find it. The references also appear in the leaflet of his company, Ness Energy International, established in 1990.

They are accompanied by Stephens' somewhat liberal interpretations in parentheses. For example, one verse from Isaiah says: "I will give you the treasures of darkness (oil) riches stored in secret places (oil traps)."

Ness, which is Hebrew for "miracle," is today traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York — and God, proclaims the company pamphlet, is chairman of the board.

Yet Stephens was not always so pious. Raised in Tye, a rural town in Texas, Stephens was a star athlete as a teenager. In the early 1960s he played two seasons of professional football as a quarterback for the New York Titans — the precursor of the New York Jets. He left pro ball for personal reasons in 1962 and returned to the oil fields of Texas.

At first, oil was good to Stephens. But money led him to a life of drinking, gambling and several stints in jail, until Jan. 16, 1978.

At 9:30 a.m. that day, as he sat on his knees beside his bed, Bible in hand, God touched him, Stephens says.

"I said, 'God, if you can forgive me, I know that you created me to do something special for You. I've really made a mess of my life,'" he recalls. "Right there on my knees beside my bed he touched me and he totally delivered me instantly, healed me, from all of my 'holics.'"

Stephens took to the road, ministering and evangelizing to spread his newfound faith. In November 1979, he realized God wanted him to return to the oil business, and a few months later, he celebrated his "second spiritual birthday" in the form of a gushing oil well.

"We blessed the well and gave it back to God," he says. Stephens struck oil 21 more times at the same site, astounding skeptical geologists and confirming his faith. "The geologists said I was crazy," he says. "But God tells me where to drill, and I drill."

Stephens soon found himself unexpectedly heading for Israel on an evangelical prayer mission. A single day in May 1982 changed his life.

First a meeting with then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, later, with Ya'acov Meridor, then minister of economic planning. As Meridor spoke of the billions of dollars of wealth to be found in the Dead Sea's minerals, Stephens believes God touched him again.

"The Lord spoke to my heart as clear as you speak to me today and said the greatest oilfield in the world is at the southwest end of the Dead Sea," he says.

A visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial afterward completed the spiritual experience — especially the section honoring Righteous Gentiles.

"I told God I don't need any more awards here on earth, but for you I will be a Righteous Gentile."

After confirming his vision with a local prophet in Texas, Stephens spent the next 15 years pressing the Israeli authorities for a drilling lease.

The Israelis, he said, never really cared that he wanted to drill in order to help spread the word of Jesus, but they could not quite believe that he intended to reinvest profits in Israel. Last year, after the state-owned Israeli oil companies were privatized — and took the drilling leases with them from the government — Stephens struck paydirt.

Stephens signed a lease agreement in October 1998. His company will be entitled to 75 percent of the profits from a successful well, and Stephens, who owns 51 percent of Ness Energy, will keep all of his personal earnings in Israel.

"In a very few months, Israel will be the lender and not the borrower," he adds, citing another biblical prophecy he believes will be fulfilled.

How crazy is the idea? An Israeli associate of Stephens says the chances of striking oil are far lower than the 10-1 odds on a typical wildcat well. But if successful, the quantities could be potentially enormous.

The Israeli government's geology authority, for example, has estimated there could be 18 billion barrels of reserves in the area. "Even if we find only 1/18th of that, a $1 billion barrel oil field at $20 a barrel will bring Israel $20 billion," Stephens says.

Stephens plans to let the well gush for 48 hours so it can be broadcast across the globe.

"This will be the most visible well in the world," he says, pointing out that God has more than one position in his company. "God," he says, "is my public relations man."