BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Lebanese officials are struggling to paper over the country's plethora of problems, political and otherwise, that are holding up exploration for natural gas in its sector of the eastern Mediterranean while Israel and even bankrupt Cyprus are already well advanced in exploiting their reserves.
There's no getting away from the fact that Lebanon's been without a functioning government for five months, the result of religion-based political rivalries fueled by outside powers, and is likely to stay that way for some time.
No political decisions are being made as sectarian violence increasingly spills over from the 2-1/2-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria and the economy tanks, with the national debt expected to hit an unprecedented $65 billion within the next few months.
That means setting up a licensing round with the 46 international companies that qualified to bid for exploration blocks has ground to a halt.
And given Lebanon's political morass, none of the qualifiers is likely to get any closer to going after the 27 trillion cubic feet of gas lying deep under the seabed off southern Lebanon -- with maybe double that off the north -- any time soon.
Beirut's Daily Star newspaper reported a few days ago some of the companies, frustrated at the delays, the political stasis and the danger Lebanon will be plunged into civil war again, have pulled out.
"I'm afraid others may do the same if the political crisis continues," a senior executive with a major oil company, warned. "The main problems facing these firms are political, not geological. Would you invest $180 million in a block under these circumstances?"
Lebanon has not had a functioning government since April, and had not had much for the previous three years.
A parliament-appointed caretaker administration, which has questionable executive powers, has failed to vote on two decrees needed to get the exploration ball rolling.
"This delay's a big loss for a country like Lebanon," lamented caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil. "These delays will deal a blow to the credibility of the state in the oil and gas sector."
Under the Petroleum Administration, established before the political paralysis set in, 12 companies qualified as operators -- including Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corp. of the United states, Norway's Statoil, France's Total, Royal Dutch Shell and Eni SpA of Italy. The rest were short-listed as non-operators.
Bassil announced Sept. 5 the date for submitting bids to explore for gas had been extended from Nov. 4 to Dec. 10 after the cabinet of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati missed a deadline to approve the necessary decrees to open up five exploration blocks.
"This delay will give Israel an advantage ... and allow them to take a position in the international oil markets," he said.
He accused "some Lebanese parties which serve the interests of other countries" of sabotaging Lebanon's efforts to launch an exploration program.
That's the only hope in sight for rescuing the country's nosediving economy, strained to the limit by 600,000 Syrian refugees, from total meltdown and neutralizing a national debt that currently stands at $56 billion.
He warned the Lebanese to beware of "Israeli oil agents in Lebanon."
Conspiracy theories, with Israel blamed for just about any misfortune from tax hikes to climate change, are a way of life in the Arab world and Bassil's dire exhortation were probably not taken too seriously.
But Israel and Lebanon are in dispute over a 300-square-mile triangle of water that includes the northern tip of Israel's biggest gas field, Leviathan, with reserves of some 16 trillion cubic feet.
The two countries are technically at war. Lebanon's Hezbollah, a heavily armed, Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim organization, fought a 34-day war with Israeli in the summer of 2006 but its forces are too busy fighting in Syria -- propping up Iran's ally, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, against Western-backed rebels -- to slug it out with Israel over maritime boundaries.
And Israel's too busy pumping gas. In March it began producing from the Tamar field, its first field with 9 tcf, and is already planning exports that will rise sharply when Leviathan goes onstream in 2014.
Cyprus, which hit paydirt off its southern coast in 2012, is seeking financing for a $10 billion liquefied natural gas plant that may export gas from Israel as well, despite its financial crash in the eurozone meltdown.