BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Energy Minister Gebran Bassil says natural gas reserves off Lebanon's Mediterranean coast are far greater than previously estimated, saying there may be 95.9 trillion cubic feet plus 865 million barrels of oil.
The estimates mark a massive increase in Lebanon's potential energy wealth, fueling growing expectations the violence-prone country is on the brink of a boom that will, at a stroke, eliminate its deepening economic distress -- a debt approaching $60 billion -- as it stumbles from day to day without a government and faces calamity from the spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Indeed, the figures cited by Bassil, whose term has been marked by a steadily deteriorating electrical supply that leaves much of Lebanon without power daily, are almost too good to be true, even with his caveats.
"The current estimate, with a probability of 50 percent, for almost 45 percent of our waters has reached 95.9 trillion cubic feet of gas," he announced in Beirut.
That total is almost equal to the 122 tcf of recoverable gas the U.S. Geological Survey estimates lies in the Levant Basin, which also includes Israel, Syria, Cyprus and the Gaza Strip.
Israel, the first to strike gas in sizeable volumes in 2009, estimates it has around 30 tcf. Cyprus, which is still exploring its southern waters, reckons it has so far found around 7 tcf, with more to come.
The Palestinians have a modest 1 tcf off the Gaza Strip, with the possibility of another 1 tcf.
What lies in the eastern Mediterranean off Syria, gripped by civil war since March 2011, is not known. No surveys have been made, but given the geological characteristics of those waters it is likely some gas reserves are there too.
Whatever Lebanon's reserves may be, and more than half the country's exclusive economic zone has still to be surveyed, there doesn't seem to be much prospect that exploration work will begin anytime soon.
Lebanon has been without a government since March because the political system is paralyzed by sectarian rivalries. Earlier this month Bassil had to postpone the licensing round for 10 exploration blocks for the second time, until Jan. 10 because there's no government to approve the required decrees that demarcate the blocks and establish a revenue-sharing formula.
In April, Lebanon selected 46 international oil companies to bid for gas exploration, 12 of them as operators.
The companies are getting impatient, but there's no indication Lebanon's feuding politicians will bury the hatchet and agree on a new government in the near future.
As it is, the politicians are even at odds over how many of the 10 exploration blocks should be drilled.
Lebanon's recently formed six-member Petroleum Administration, which took two years to establish because of political squabbling, wants to limit drilling blocks to five. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key power broker, favors opening up all 10 together.
Berri's leader of the Shiite Amal movement and an ally of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite party that's the most powerful force in Lebanon and wants to press ahead with large-scale exploration now.
Their Christian ally, the Maronite Catholic Free Patriotic Movement, is headed by former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, father-in-law of Energy Minister Bassil who his opponents allege only got the job through nepotism.
Their political rivals, including Maronite President Michel Suleiman, oppose convening an extraordinary cabinet session because that would provide Aoun and Bassil political gains.
The Sunni-led Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who's been living in self-imposed exile for two years because he fears assassination, doesn't trust Bassil to handle the vital oil energy sector and accuses him, and other Aounist ministers, of corruption.
Many in Lebanon, where graft's a way of life, would say that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Commentator Matt Nash of the upstart Lebanese website NOW, observes everyone has to "remember that most of the people talking about how enticing Lebanon's waters [are] stand to make a lot of money off the process no matter what."
In fact, he added, "until the political class can get its act together ... all talk of riches and resources is little more than speculation."