BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- As Lebanon stands on the brink of a new spasm of sectarian bloodletting, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil says he plans to go ahead with moves to launch exploration of offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean on Jan. 10.
That's when the Energy Ministry has scheduled an auction in which some 46 international oil companies selected in April will bid to exploration rights on half a dozen offshore blocks, the first step toward exploiting what could be Lebanon's last chance at finding economic salvation, and possibly political harmony, since independence from France in 1943.
But with Lebanon's fractious religious sects at each other's throats again, the victims of regional power rivalries as much as their own historical feuding, Lebanon's prospects of an energy bonanza seem to be slipping away.
Bassil told an oil and gas conference in Beirut Wednesday that he was committed to holding the auction, already delayed twice because there's no government to approve the bidding round, and hasn't been since March when Prime Minister Najib Mikati's administration collapsed because of the political feuding amid the increasingly sectarian war in neighboring Syria.
He warned that the political feuding between Shiite, Sunni and Druze Muslims, Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox and other sects were seriously endangering Lebanon's prospects of an energy bonanza.
The oil companies who've shown interest in operating off Lebanon and invested millions of dollars to acquire seismic data are becoming disenchanted and frustrated with the delays.
He appealed to the feuding factions to bury the hatchet in the national interest, a concept that often seems to be alien in Lebanon.
"We know that the companies that have put their trust in us and invested millions of dollars will not understand," Bassil said.
"We are determined to complete the international auction and take it to its completion on Jan. 10 ... Once the conditions become ripe, the auction will be completed, the results analyzed and negotiations with the winning companies finalized.
"Then we will return to the Cabinet to take the appropriate decisions."
But sectarian tensions, aggravated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, are mounting alarmingly and have already triggered street battles, bombings and assassinations that could erupt into full-blown conflict that would no doubt doom the anticipated energy boom.
Mikati, who now heads a toothless caretaker government, has repeatedly refused to convene an extraordinary session to pass two decrees needed to proceed with exploration work, insisting that such a gathering would be unconstitutional and still lacks political consensus.
In the absence of any government ruling on an auction, the legality of Bassil's move is not clear. It's not likely that foreign oil companies will make any bids until that's been cleared up.
But the prize is big. According to seismic surveys carried out in recent months, the ministry estimates that 45 percent of Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone contains 96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 850 million barrels of oil.
The indications are that the rest of the EEZ will also contain sizable reserves.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and the Gaza Strip, holds an estimated 123 tcf and 1.7 billion barrels of oil.
Lebanon is slipping behind its neighbors in the race to extract the energy riches lying thousands of feet under the Mediterranean seabed.
Israel, which first hit paydirt in 2009 and currently has reserves estimated at around 30 tcf of natural gas, began production from its Tamar field off its northern coast in March.
Its biggest field, Leviathan, with an estimated 16 tcf, plus up to another 9 tcf in deeper strata, is expected to follow in 2014. Further strikes are expected.
Cyprus began exploration of its southern waters, which abut Leviathan, in 2012. So far reserves are estimated at around 7 tcf.
Israel and Cyprus are mulling joint export facilities, with either a floating liquid natural gas plant for tanker shipping, or a possible pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey, for shipment to Western Europe through an existing pipeline network.
Political rivalries are a problem. The Greek Cypriots are at odds with neighboring Turkey, which seized the northern third of Cyprus in 1974, while Israel-Turkey relations are under heavy strain.
Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war, are squabbling over disputed maritime boundaries.