The Middle East is the apex of global crude oil extraction, yet a country with no petroleum deposits — Israel — is emerging as the region’s leader in alternative fuel research and production.

How, you ask? Jatropha.

Neither a mind-altering substance nor a household cleaning product, Jatropha is an African perennial plant with seeds that contain up to 35 percent vegetable oil. Why have we never heard of it? The oil extraction method is secret. And the firm with the coveted extraction patent, Galten Global Alternative Energy Co., is based in Israel.

To compare the Jatropha plant to other sources of biofuel, Galten’s website asserts that only one ton of biofuel can be extracted from 2.5 acres of edible crops like corn or soybeans — as opposed to three tons of biofuel from the same amount of Jatropha.

Since 2006, Galten has become an integral member of Israel’s diverse and brilliant arena of green technology companies. Galten joins industry leaders OrganiTECH, now manufacturing self-operating greenhouses that produce pesticide-free green leaf vegetables; Project Better Place, currently designing and building a charging grid for electric cars; and Mekorot, Israel’s leading water technology company.

To be successful, however, these companies rely heavily on exporting their products and producing abroad.

Because Israel inhabits only a tiny fraction of land in the Middle East — and its agricultural regions are already densely populated — Galten chose to develop its technologies in a foreign country with two important advantages: 1) more expendable land area and 2) a native supply of Jatropha. Galten selected Ghana as its nursery for Jatropha production, and has already leased more than a half-million acres of land in the country.

Though the political climate in Ghana is relatively stable, Galten’s project is not without its obstacles. According to Doron Levi, the chief operating officer of Galten, “We are working according to plan growing the Jatropha plants. We’ve built a nursery, but it’s not easy in Africa.” Levi explained that the poisonous bush snake also enjoys the benefits of the Jatropha plant, through shade and cover from the harsh African sun.

Snakes scare the bejeezus out of me, so I sympathize with Galten’s engineers on the ground, but I’m confident that Galten can solve its snake problems to focus on its ultimate goal: eliminating Israel’s dependence on Arab oil.

On Oct. 22, crude oil prices dropped below $65 per barrel. Though OPEC is now scrambling for a solution, Israel is silently smiling — for good reason. Many years of cultivating alternative fuel technology, it seems, are beginning to pay extraordinary dividends.

In an Israeli news op/ed earlier this year titled “Beyond the Oil Age,” Sarah Kass, the director of strategy and evaluation at the Avi Chai Foundation, noted that the most important geopolitical event in the region 60 years ago was not the creation of the State of Israel. Rather, “It was the discovery and cultivation, then, and the commercialization, since then, of the hot ocean of oil beneath the sands of Arabia.” Post WWII, according to Kass, “Mideast oil began to dominate the world strategic landscape.”

Today, the vast majority of Arab-world GDP stems from oil exports. Though each Arab country spends its oil revenues differently, only one spending strategy truly benefits Arab citizens: domestic reinvestment of oil revenues into human capital and infrastructure. The United Arab Emirates employs this strategy widely, especially in Dubai, yet most other Arab states are content to hoard oil revenues for the wealthiest ruling class — or to invest them in terrorist organizations, nuclear projects or weapons imports.

Enter Iran.

Though Iran is not an Arab state, it plays an important role as a major power in the Mideast oil hegemony. Its influence reaches every state in the region, and its oil revenues sponsor internationally recognized terrorists groups Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Fortunately, plunging oil prices have shocked and disrupted Iran’s foreign “aid” network, because Iran’s budget is balanced around a crude oil price of $95 per barrel.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s budget is now “unsustainable.” And this could seriously alter the balance of power, in both energy production and terrorism finance in the Mideast.

Galten, then, is quite literally planting seeds to change the regional hegemony in the Middle East. Oil prices, left in the dust of the United States’ financial collapse, will inevitably skyrocket once more. Once they do, Israel can and will be the pinnacle of non-crude oil driven economies in the Middle East. With venture capital funds pouring into Israel’s green technology industry, the days of OPEC’s central command over the Middle East’s energy production — and its regional economy — may soon end.

At the end of the oil horizon, the Middle East will rely on Israel for alternative fuel. At least we should hope so.

Ari Parritz can be reached at aparritz@umich.edu.

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