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East Med gas complicates regional rivalries

June 5, 2013 at 3:32 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 5 (UPI) -- Energy Minister Gebran Bassil gleefully boasts every chance he gets of the 30 trillion cubic feet of gas he says lie in just 10 percent of Lebanese waters.

But given the country's brewing sectarian conflict and the war in Syria next door, it may be some time before Lebanon can enjoy its newfound wealth, maybe even never given the nation's inflammable sectarian rivalries, dysfunctional political system and deep-rooted corruption.

Indeed, Lebanon's vision of energy riches and the gas fields already found by Israel and Cyprus buried under the eastern Mediterranean are only intensifying "the long-running rivalries within the region ... arguably making them more difficult to resolve," observed the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

In a report released Tuesday, the think tank cautioned: "The complex nature of the overlapping claims, the history of conflict in the region and potential riches available to cash-strapped nations make it more difficult to resolve the various disputes.

"As such, the eastern Mediterranean now presents a long-term dilemma for regional states, complicated by the convulsions of the Arab Spring and the interests of extra-regional powers."

With most of Lebanese waters now surveyed, Bassil's claim is buttressed by the British surveyor Spectrum, which says there's probably 40- to 80 tcf in Lebanon's exclusive economic zone.

How much of that's recoverable is not yet known. But 46 international oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total of France, are among bidders for exploration rights, a process that began May 2.

Contracts are expected to be signed by February 2014, with optimism about production starting in 2016, which is highly unlikely.

But the problem is there's no elected government right now, only a caretaker that has little inclination -- or power -- to take action while sectarian tensions inexorably build up, largely because of the increasingly sectarian nature of the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The nature of Lebanese politics suggests that control of the Energy Ministry will involve a major political scrap for sectarian ends, rather than using the funds generated by the gas to reduce Lebanon's $58 billion debt, 140 percent of gross domestic product, the worst in the Arab world.

Lebanon, as usual, is getting dragged into what has all the makings of a region-wide showdown between mainstream Sunni Muslims and the breakaway Shiite sect.

The Shiite Hezbollah movement, the creature of Iran and the most powerful force in Lebanon, has thousands of fighters in Syria helping the embattled regime in Damascus.

On top of this, Beirut says Israel's Leviathan field is partly in Lebanese waters and they're squabbling over a 380-square-mile triangle of water both claim.

The geological trends indicate it's likely to contain significant gas reserves.

Israel and Lebanon are still technically at war. Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006, and if Hezbollah scores big in Syria they may have at it again.

Israel was the first to strike gas when Nobel Energy of Houston and its main Israeli partner, the Delek Group, found the Tamar field in 2009, with reserves of 10 tcf. Tamar began producing March 30.

Then in June 2010, they discovered the Leviathan field with recoverable reserves of at least 18- to 20 tcf.

All this marked a strategic shift for Israel, which has had to import its fuel since the state was founded in 1948.

Now it's a potential exporter, but regional rivalries and security issues are holding up setting up the elaborate infrastructure required for an export industry.

Noble Energy has also found gas off the southern coast of Cyprus in the Aphrodite field, which abuts Israel's Leviathan and holds at least 8 tcf, and counting -- enough to meet all Cyprus' energy needs for decades.

But the island has been split into Greek and Turkish sectors since Turkey invaded in 1974.

Nkara's seeking to stop all drilling off the Greek sector, claiming the Turkish-held north must benefit as well.

But this dispute is overshadowed by the wider and long-running rivalry between Greece and Turkey.

Turkey currently is drilling off northern Cyprus, but Ankara's still feuding with Athens over the hydrocarbon reserves in the continental shelf, a dispute dating back to the 1970s and which has heightened military tension.

These two NATO members narrowly avoided a military crisis over drilling in 1987.

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