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Lebanon pols battle over energy ministry to control gasfields

Jan. 31, 2014 at 4:13 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- As deeply divided Lebanon struggles to form a new government after 10 months of political paralysis, one of the key issues is which faction will control the Energy Ministry and the development of potentially rich offshore gas fields.

Indeed, it has become something of a Catch-22 situation that's blocking progress toward extracting the rich natural gas fields that lie in 2,000 feet under the eastern Mediterranean that could rescue the tiny Mediterranean country from economic collapse.

And, like just about everything else in Lebanon, the issue has assumed sectarian overtones with the various sects all wanting to control the financial bonanza that the gas fields, which officials say could hold at least 96 trillion cubic feet, plus 850 million barrels of oil, will bring -- if drilling ever starts.

Work on the 10 exploration blocks in Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone cannot begin until the cabinet passes decrees on the initial number of blocks that can be auctioned off to international oil companies and establishes a revenue-sharing mechanism.

But the caretaker administration installed when the government collapsed in March says it does not have the authority to take that step and a new government cannot be formed because the feuding parties, largely sectarian in nature, cannot agree on a formula acceptable to all.

The auction, originally slated for May 2, 2013, has been postponed three times. It's now scheduled for April 10, although no one's betting on that actually happening.

Right now, the main bone of contention is a proposal to rotate the key ministries -- the so-called "sovereign portfolios" of defense, finance, interior and foreign affairs plus energy -- between the major groups.

These are the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance headed by Hezbollah and which includes the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement headed by former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition headed by the Sunni Muslim Future Movement of former premier Saad Hariri and a centrist group of technocrats around President Michel Suleiman.

After months of fruitless wrangling, the current proposal by the Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, a telecommunications tycoon, is March 8 and March 14 each get eight cabinet seats, with a similar number going to the centrists, with the key ministries rotating among the three factions.

That seems to have won the approval of many of the feuding politicians.

But caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, a Maronite and Aoun's son-in-law who held the portfolio in the government that folded in March 2013, has refused to give up his portfolio, which will become one of the country's most important ministries -- and certainly one with access to large chunks on money once exploration gets going.

Bassil said Thursday the Energy Ministry is a "guarantee" for Christians that they'll have a significant hold on power in the same way the Interior Ministry is a guarantee for the Sunnis and the Finance Ministry for the Shiites.

Indeed, he said Aoun's party, which opposes rotation, also wants the telecommunications ministry, another generator of big bucks, and two other ministries, including a "sovereign portfolio."

Bassil's track record as a government minister is less than stellar. Under his stewardship since November 2009, Lebanon's electricity supply has gone south, with some parts of the country suffering blackouts of 20 hours a day.

Many Lebanese fear the gas wealth lying offshore will wind up in the pockets of corrupt political leaders rather than reducing the national debt of a country of 4 million that's tipped to hit more than $65 billion this year.

"Unfortunately, corruption is quite pronounced in Lebanon," energy economist Carole Nakhle observed.

Aoun's FPM, Lebanon's largest Christian party, is allied with Hezbollah, which has more firepower than the national army.

Under an unwritten agreement between Lebanon's sects that dates back to independence from France in 1943, the country's president is always a Maronite.

Aoun desperately wants to be president but he needs Hezbollah's power to do that.

Hezbollah cannot have one of its own in the presidential palace, so Aoun is the next best thing.

There seems no end in sight for the political paralysis, and it's likely to get worse as a divisive presidential election looms closer. Meantime, the gas stays put.

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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