Lebanon steps on gas, but progress slow

Nov. 29, 2012 at 3:08 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Lebanon's government, which is struggling to keep the crisis-ridden Mediterranean country functioning, has approved a six-member board to regulate the vast natural gas fields reported offshore. But don't expect action anytime soon.

Each member of the Petroleum Administration Board is drawn from a different sect, including Shiite, Sunni and Druze Muslims, the Maronite Catholics and Greek Orthodox. In Lebanon, that usually means endless bickering and constant jockeying for sectarian preference, although the potential profits could override sectarian differences in this case.

But a 15-year civil war, inept governance, deep-rooted corruption and bureaucratic bungling have also played their part in Lebanon's lack of development and driven off foreign investors.

Lebanese Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil this month proclaimed that a 3-D seismic survey conducted by the Norway's Spectrum Co. and Dolphin Geophysical indicates larger natural gas reserves than previously thought.

These totaled some 25 trillion cubic feet of gas across Lebanon's exclusive economic zone. That's about the same as the combined reserves of Israel's Leviathan and Tamar fields further south discovered in 2009-10.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Cyprus, contains around 123 trillion cubic feet of gas plus 1.7 billion barrels of oil.

Lebanon's Parliament passed a law in 2010 delineating the country's maritime boundaries and its EEZ. This was submitted to the United Nations but it conflicts considerably with Israel's version.

Beirut claims Leviathan, Israel's largest field with an estimated 16 tcf of gas, overlaps Lebanon's declared EEZ, a disputed zone measuring roughly 328 square miles.

No swift resolution of this problem is in sight. Both sides talk about using military force to back up their claims.

Lebanon and Israel are technically still at war and often clash.

Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement fought a largely inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006, during which the Israeli air force blasted much of Lebanon's infrastructure.

That war remains unfinished business, for both sides. Israel's now worried that its gas fields and growing infrastructure are vulnerable to attacks by Hezbollah. The group, largely armed and funded by Tehran, reputedly has a vast arsenal of missiles, including sea-skimming Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship weapons that could be used against production platforms.

Given the Jewish state's deep fears of Iran and its contentious nuclear program, it's concerned Tehran will order Hezbollah to attack the gas fields that are about to transform Israel's economy after decades of having to import energy.

So this sword of Damocles is hanging over potential investors in Lebanon's gas industry-in-waiting.

There are also concerns of renewed sectarian warfare in Lebanon, triggered in significant degree by the 2-year-old bloodbath in Syria that's spilling over into Lebanon, a state already divided between pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

If the Lebanese are waiting for a herd of foreign energy companies to bang on their door they may be disappointed, despite the upbeat pronouncements of politicians eager to deal themselves into energy's big league.

Globes, Israel's business daily, recently mused about why none of the oil majors, or even the second-string internationals, have scrambled for a stake in the Jewish state's burgeoning energy industry and the billions to be made down the line.

This absence was made painfully evident in June when neighboring Cyprus, which sits atop a smaller gas bonanza, had a posse of Western and Asian oil companies such as France's Total, Italy Eni, Kogas of South Korea and Petronas of Malaysia clamoring for exploration blocks.

Globes deduced that, apart from regional tension and periodic warfare, the companies were put off by concern they'd be blacklisted in the Arab world if they invested in Israel, and fall victim to Israeli over-regulation.

The advent of shale oil might have had something to do with it as well.

But the ever-present regional hostilities are clearly a marker here.

U.S. writer Charles Glass, a seasoned veteran of the Middle East's wars, notes that Israel and Lebanon are still scrapping over a few hundred acres of border scrubland known as the Shebaa Farms, 12 years after Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon ended a 22-year occupation.

"If the two sides prolong war over some wheat fields, imagine what they would do for fields of gas and oil worth billions of dollars," he observed.

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