BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Lebanon's dysfunctional, crisis-ridden government is reported to be close to appointing a panel to oversee exploration of potential rich natural gas fields offshore that could be the salvation of a country hovering on the brink of a new sectarian explosion.
But no one's holding their breath that foreign companies are likely to start drilling any time soon, even as neighboring Israel and Cyprus, which sit on the same gas-bearing strata as Lebanon, move swiftly toward energy self-sufficiency and lucrative export programs.
The signs, based on 3-D seismic surveys, are that Lebanon probably has major gas fields within its maritime economic zone.
"The data that I have is that there's greater potential offshore Lebanon than offshore Syria and offshore Cyprus," David Rowlands, chief executive officer of the Norway's Spectrum Co., which is surveying the Lebanese sector.
Israel, whose exploration operations are the most advanced in the region, has found around 30 trillion cubic feet of gas in its waters since 2009 and that's expected to rise.
Cyprus found some 7 tfc in one of 12 blocks of the Aphrodite field off its south coast in its first exploratory drilling in December 2011. The Cypriots say they sit on enough gas to meet their current consumption rate for 200 years.
Syria lies along the same offshore strata. It hasn't conducted surveys yet. However, it's understood to contain gas fields similar to its neighbors.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, which runs from Syria through the waters of Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, the Gaza Strip and Egypt, contains 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and some 1.7 billion barrels of oil.
Spectrum and its partner, Dolphin Geophysical, are surveying some 1,200 square miles of the eastern Mediterranean, a program due to be completed in January.
But the Lebanese, their political process tangled in traditional sectarian rivalries between Muslims and Christians, and even subgroups within those camps, are trailing badly in the race the undersea riches.
Each sect wants its slice of the potential revenue and, given the deep-rooted corruption in Lebanon's political and economic life, some observers question how much of the eventual gas revenues will reach government coffers.
This, and the flare-up in sectarian tensions fanned by the 18-month-old civil war in neighboring Syria, has bedeviled Lebanese efforts to create an energy infrastructure and governing body to issue exploration licenses and negotiate contracts with foreign oil companies.
A recent seminar on gas exploration was attended by dozens of companies. Many were just testing the water but a surprising number were serious about drilling off Lebanon -- although it remains to be seen how many will risk doing so.
With Lebanon's economy dipping dangerously, as much from a lack of economic strategy and a functioning government as from the perpetual political instability, the energy-starved country needs to utilize its gas reserves quickly.
Lebanon, like old enemy Israel, desperately needs cheap energy. Lebanon has to import 96 percent of its energy consumption on oil imports.
That's bad enough at the best of times but impossible when prices soar, as they are now because of regional tensions.
Right now, Lebanon's state electricity system is falling apart, with major blackouts daily.
On top of that, the squabbling Lebanese were late in providing the United Nations with Beirut's claims over maritime waters with Israel, with which Lebanon is still technically at war.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite political movement that also has the most powerful forces in Lebanon, fought a 34-day with Israel in 2006 and is braced for a new one.
It has vowed it won't allow Israel to "plunder" its energy assets. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in 2011, "Whoever harms our future oil facilities has their own facilities and consequently will face the same damage."
Beirut claims Israel's largest field, Leviathan, with reserves estimated at 16 tcf, encroaches on some 330 square miles of Lebanon's maritime zone. Israel denies that and the countries are locked in an escalating dispute over gas fields and oil worth billions of dollars which could be both countries' economic salvation.
Israel's equally adamant. Last year, Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau declared, "We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect ... international maritime law."