BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- As Lebanon's political leaders and sectarian chieftains squabble over who will control the Energy Ministry and the oil and gas bonanza in the eastern Mediterranean, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil accuses rivals of "conspiring against our oil."
And just to underline the extent of the prize that's at stake, one of Lebanon's major banking houses, Bank Audi, reported that on the basis of the 96 trillion cubic feet of gas and 865 million barrels of oil the ministry estimates lies offshore, Lebanon's energy wealth could exceed $600 billion.
The bank said in the report published Thursday it was optimistic about the prospects for the nascent energy industry, even though Lebanon's been without a functioning government since March 2013, has a $63 billion national debt, and is hovering on the brink of another bout of sectarian bloodletting linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
"In the longer run, beyond current temporary setbacks, Lebanon's long-term outlook bodes favorable," it said.
"As the extraction of oil and gas from its territories start to materialize, it can move the country from one state to a completely different one."
With such huge potential revenues, "the extraction of natural resources can put an end to the country's most significant postwar conundrum, which is public finances, while growth could turn into sustainably strong levels for a number of years."
The collapse of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati 11 months ago has blocked plans to launch exploration of Lebanese waters, because the caretaker government now in place is essentially powerless.
Meantime, the feuding politicians, representing Lebanon's fractious religious sects, cannot agree on a new, all-party government, while the nation's energy prospects are increasingly becoming a sectarian issue.
The main sticking point is the refusal of Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite movement and its Maronite Catholic ally, the Free Patriotic Movement led by former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, to relinquish the Energy Ministry, which has been headed by Bassil, Aoun's son-in-law, since 2009.
The key difference between the two main political coalitions is Lebanon's relationship with Syria, which has long dominated its tiny neighbor. The March 8 alliance, headed by Hezbollah, favors Syrian tutelage.
The March 14 bloc, headed by the Sunni Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, detests Syria.
It demands Hezbollah, whose forces are supporting the embattled Syrian regime, end its involvement in the Syrian war that's exacerbating sectarian passions in Lebanon.
The energy riches under the Mediterranean have only fueled these differences and the whole issue is becoming highly politicized, to the point that some Lebanese fear foreign oil companies will lose interest, particularly as the threat of renewed sectarian violence growing stronger by the day.
Because the caretaker government has been unable to approve decrees listing which of the exploration blocks will be drilled first and defining a revenue-sharing mechanism, an auction to award contracts has been postponed three times.
It was supposed to have been held in May 2013. Now it's scheduled for April 10, and given the political deadlock it's likely to be postponed again.
So given the bleak outlook, Bank Audi's evaluation that there's $600 billion out there for the taking by the Lebanese seemed a trifle over-optimistic in a region increasingly consumed by conflict.
But on closer reading, the report notes that the figure of $600 billion-plus was provided by "Ministry of Energy sources," which could account for its unusually upbeat tone.
This emerged after the As Safir daily published an op-ed by Bassil, who refuses to relinquish the Energy Ministry under a blueprint for a new government, that denounced the "conspiracy" against the FPM, and March 8 in general, by ensuring they're sidelined, particularly on energy, by rotating ministries between all parties.
"We will fight those conspiring against our oil," he vowed.
Bassil claims that for the minority Christians, the Energy Ministry is their guarantee they'll have a stake in Lebanon's anticipated prosperity.
The efforts to shift him out of the ministry is "a conspiracy affecting all citizens and their hopes of reviving Lebanon and making it prosperous...
"Their so-called ministerial rotation ... is the means of the conspiracy against Lebanon's oil ... and removing us from that ministry forever," he wrote.
"We warn against threatening the Christians by placing them outside the state ... We will stay inside the state, by force if necessary."