BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Lebanon has raised the stakes in the high-octane poker game under way in the natural gas-rich eastern Mediterranean by approving a law to administer offshore exploration and drilling, joining Israel, Cyprus and Turkey in a potentially explosive race for energy riches.
The Beirut government laid down the regulations for the emerging energy industry Wednesday.
"If all goes as scheduled," said Cesar Abi Khalil, an Energy Ministry adviser, "the licensing round will be held this year.
"The companies will have six months to bid and then the winners will be chosen and exploration will begin."
Energy expert Roudi Baroudi estimates that Lebanon's reserves total three times those of Libya's 54 trillion cubic feet. That's probably a major overestimate. But it's certain to heighten tension in the region triggered by Israel's discovery of major gas fields off its coast, a drive by nearby Cyprus to follow suit and Turkey's threat to send in its navy to stop the other two from joining forces to exploit the region's energy riches.
On top of this, Beirut claims parts of the Israeli gas fields lie in Lebanese waters. The two countries are technically at war.
Hezbollah, the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Lebanese "resistance movement," has warned it will repel Israeli efforts to "plunder" what it considers Lebanese energy reserves. Israel has vowed to use force to protect its assets.
Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006 in which Lebanon's infrastructure was heavily bombed. The seasoned Lebanese fighters battled Israel's vaunted military to a standstill and claimed a "divine victory."
Both sides view the inconclusive conflict as unfinished business.
It remains to be seen whether the dispute over the vast natural gas reserves, along with several billion barrels of oil, in the Levant Basin will be the trigger for renewed war.
But the bottom line is the infrastructure Israel is building, including offshore platforms and export terminals, is vulnerable to attack by Hezbollah, and even Syria and Iran.
If Beirut's drive to get in on the regional energy boom does actually get under way, and that's a big "if" since the threat of conflict could scare off potential investors, Lebanon will find itself in the same boat.
In theory, that could create a version of the Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction between the United States and the Soviet Union that prevented an atomic Armageddon from 1949-99.
It could, optimists argue, push the adversaries toward some sort of peace agreement.
But after more than 60 years of incessant warfare no one's holding their breath.
Israel hit pay dirt in 2009-10, when Houston company Nobel Energy and its Israeli partner, Delek Drilling, found gas reserves totaling some 25 tcf -- and that figure could increase as the full extent of the finds becomes known.
The main fields are Leviathan, with some 16 tcf of gas and believed to extend northward into Cypriot waters already dubbed the Aphrodite field, and Tamar with 8 tcf.
The prize is immense. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, contains as much as 123 billion tcf of recoverable gas, the equivalent of 20 billion barrels of oil.
Moving into Cypriot waters takes the thorny issue into the embrace of yet another conflict, the age-old friction between Greece and Turkey and the frontline of that dispute, the divided island of Cyprus which has no energy resources of its own.
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 following a short-lived, Athens-engineered coup by supporters of union with Greece. The Turks seized the north and declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It's recognized only by Ankara. The Greek Cypriot administration in the south is universally recognized.
The Turks, led by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claims Nicosia has no right to explore for gas because the Cyprus issue has not been settled.
Add to this that Israel and Turkey, once strong allies, fell out in 2010 and are now bitter rivals, and the animosity just gets worse.
The Greek Cypriots are increasingly aligned with Israel under a plan to jointly export their gas by pipeline to the energy-hungry European Union via Greece, thus sharpening tensions with Turkey.
Nobel Energy, which spearheads exploration off Cyprus as well, has already reported initial indications of at least 7 tcf of gas in Aphrodite.
That's sure to stir things up.