In Lebanon, gas hopes have evaporated

On May 30, 2013, then energy minister Gebran Bassil (left) looks at screens aboard a boat during a visit to areas suspected of having gas reserves, offshore from the Lebanese coast.

On the gas chessboard of the Eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon is a little apart. Since the promising seismic studies carried out in the 2000s, the country has dreamed of itself as a player in the hydrocarbons market, with its coffers dripping with gas dollars. But to the chagrin of local political elites, the explorations carried out risk never materializing. In April, the coastal exploration consortium, led by Total and including ENI and Russian Novatek, said gas had been found in the first drilling area, Block 4, located across from Byblos, 40 km north of Beirut, but not in sufficient quantity to be marketed. As for the second sector where the chances of discovery are supposed to be high, block 9, located opposite Tire, in the south of the country, a geopolitical imbroglio is hindering the start of research.

“With all our problems, the best thing that could happen to us would be that we never find gas in Lebanon” Laury Haytayan, specialist in the geopolitics of hydrocarbons

Israel, with which Lebanon is still technically at war, claims that 8% of this area encroaches on its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The lack of precise demarcation of the maritime borders between the two countries has so far prevented the dispute from being settled. Despite American mediation, the two parties have still not agreed on the parameters of the negotiation.

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Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement – the main Christian formation – which makes the discovery of gas an almost personal affair, pushes for an arrangement. But the powerful Shiite Amal party demands that land borders be included in the discussion, including the very sensitive issue of the Shebaa Farms, an area still occupied by Israel. The Hezbollah movement, the other Lebanese Shiite pole, actor in the 2006 war against the Hebrew state, is also slowing down the project for fear that the delimitation of maritime borders is perceived as recognition on its part of the existence of ‘Israel.

Finding gas: a good deal … on paper

“It is complicated to launch drilling in block 9 in the absence of an agreement, explains Laury Haytayan, specialist in the geopolitics of hydrocarbons at the American University of Beirut. If the consortium found gas there, the Israelis could ask to verify that it does not come from a common field and demand that exploration be stopped. “ The mega-explosion on August 4 at the port of Beirut, which damaged Total equipment, also slowed down exploration work.

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