Lebanon has been effectively without a government for six months and the politicians who represent the country's fractious Muslim and Christian sects have repeatedly failed to agree on a new Cabinet, which is needed to give the official go-ahead to oil companies to start drilling in 10 offshore blocks.
Meantime, Lebanon's public debt is climbing toward an unprecedented $60 billion as the country slowly comes apart under the spillover from the 2-1/2-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria and the estimated 1 million refugees who have flooded into a state already on its economic knees.
Seismic studies of Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, indicate that there's at least 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying deep under the seabed of the northern sector. A similar volume is believed to lie in the southern sector that abuts Israel's EEZ.
Israel hit gas in 2009-10 and current reserves are pegged as high as 30 tcf. It's way ahead of Lebanon and began production from its Tamar field, with reserves of 8-10 tcf, on March 30.
Any hopes that Lebanon's sects might set aside their historical rivalries to form a government needed to approve two decrees required to establish production-sharing contracts and get drilling started were dashed for the fourth time this week.
On Monday, amid what one political source called "personal demands" by various sectarian party leaders regarding how the spoils of the energy boom should be split up, the Energy Ministry had to once again postpone the licensing round for the 46 companies selected in April to bid for the exploration blocks, from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10, 2014.
"There are political and financial motives behind the obstruction of a cabinet session to approve the two decrees," declared Fadi Abboud, tourism minister in the powerless caretaker government under Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed when the last government collapsed in March, largely through pressure from Hezbollah.
The Sunni Muslim Future Bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who fled Lebanon two years ago in self-imposed exile because he fears assassination, accused Mikati's caretaker cabinet of involvement in "suspicious deals" and said such an important issue should be left to a new government with full powers.
Gebran Bassil, the much-maligned caretaker energy minister and son-in-law of powerful Christian political chieftain Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's ally, wants a special cabinet session to approve the two decrees.
Mikati, already grappling with a plethora of political battles, says he doesn't want another sectarian donnybrook and insists, somewhat quixotically given the rivalries involved, there must first be consensus.
In Lebanon these days, as sectarian divisions deepen and the Syrian war moves closer every day, the prospect of consensus, even on such a matter of national importance as a gas bonanza, is extremely remote.
But there are other problems.
Israel's biggest field, Leviathan, with around 16-20 tcf, extends into a 380-square-mile disputed zone between the Jewish state and Lebanon, which in energy terms is the main bone of contention between the two countries who are still technically at war.
The Lebanese, and most particularly the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, have declared they will oppose any Israeli effort to intrude on waters Beirut claims as its own.
The Israelis have vowed they'll resist "with utmost force" any Lebanese incursions and are building up their navy to protect their offshore facilities.
The dispute's currently before the United Nations. But Israel says that tenders for five exploration blocks Lebanon published in September includes one, Block 9, that encroaches on waters claimed by the Jewish state.
Since that block supposedly sits on the same gas-rich geological strata in the Leviathan field, the prospects of major strikes are pretty high -- enough to possibly ignite new hostilities.
Israel's Globes business daily observed that "international law experts say that Israel is liable to lose territory if it does not object to the Lebanese acts in court, or even militarily."
Israeli lawyer David Kornbluth, an expert on national boundaries, declared: "There's definitely room to demonstrate sovereignty along the Israeli line -- for example, patrols by navy ships along it."
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