Lebanon's gas boom-in-waiting goes into deep freeze

Nov. 7, 2013 at 3:17 PM   |   0 comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Lebanon's energy boom-in-waiting seems to be more or less on permanent hold these days, with little prospect that the country's perpetually feuding politicians can set aside their sectarian rivalries to get exploration under way.

But the danger of spillover from the Syrian civil war next door and meddling by regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran could well put the whole economy-saving enterprise into deep freeze for a long time.

The most immediate problem is that Lebanon, squeezed by a national debt of $60 billion and its economy crumbling by the day, has been without a government since March, when the Iranian-backed Hezbollah engineered the collapse of a so-called unity Cabinet.

All efforts to cobble together a new one have foundered on the sectarian rivalries that have dogged the tiny Mediterranean state since France bestowed independence in 1943.

At that time, Christians, headed by Maronite Catholics, were purportedly in the majority, thanks to a little French jiggery-pokery with the demographics before they departed.

But these days Shiite Muslims are the largest single sect and they're dominated by Hezbollah, which refuses to accept any Cabinet it does not control.

Now, on top of these rivalries -- not to mention the deep-rooted friction between Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, protected by Saudi Arabia, and the increasingly powerful Shiites, aligned with Iran -- the war in neighboring Syria is intruding more and more every day.

This is not going to go away, and every day the friction gets worse as the Syrian conflict increasingly becomes a flat-out sectarian war between majority Sunnis and minority Alawites, a Shiite offshoot that's ruled since 1970 -- in other words, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Because there's no government, no decision can be made to launch exploration of 10 offshore blocks in Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone in the eastern Mediterranean.

In April, 46 international oil companies were approved to participate in bidding for these blocks. The auction was supposed to have taken place this month, but was postponed until December. That's been put back to Jan. 10, 2014.

But even that date's far from certain. The companies are getting impatient. No-one's withdrawn yet, but interest is waning.

Israel and Cyprus, both neighbors of Lebanon, have already made strikes. Israel's found reserves of around 25 trillion-30 trillion cubic feet of gas and expects to discover more. It began production in March.

Cyprus is still exploring its southern waters that abuts Israel's giant Leviathan field, and estimates there's at least 7 tcf there.

Lebanon's caretaker energy minister, Gebran Bassil, declared in October that seismic surveys of 45 percent of Lebanese waters indicate reserves of 95.9 tcf -- plus 865 million barrels of oil.

The country's 10 exploration blocks range in size from 580 square miles to 965 square miles, so it's likely that total reserves will be far higher than previous estimates.

Indeed, based on those calculations, Lebanon could be sitting on most of the 122 tcf (trillion cubic feet) of recoverable gas, and 1.7 billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates lies deep under the Levant Basin off Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's political vacuum drags on, with no end in sight.

The danger here is that the sectarian divisions that plunged Lebanon into a 1975-90 civil war fueled by outside powers in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed, will explode once again, ignited by the Syrian war that encroaches a little more every day.

A major offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who's backed by Iran, is expected in the coming weeks and seems certain to boil over along Lebanon's northeastern border, where violence is swelling daily.

On top of this, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman's six-year term expires in May, but parliament, which elects presidents, is paralyzed. So the prospect of a divisive presidential vacuum looms on top of everything else.

There's also a danger that Saudi Arabia, disillusioned with the U.S. failure to attack Assad in Syria and possibly end that war, will seek once again to meddle in Lebanon by bolstering the outnumbered Sunnis to distract Hezbollah from helping keep Assad in power.

Those concerns were heightened two weeks ago when Hezbollah's deputy leader, Naim Qassem, warned that the Sunni-led March 14 alliance was under orders from "a gulf state to obstruct the formation of a new Cabinet."

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