Lebanon’s Gas Under Threat: Israel Drilling Near Southern Fields

A member of the Israeli security forces fires tear gas towards Palestinian demonstrators during clashes following a protest against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 5 July 2013. (Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

At a distance of 75 km from the coast of Haifa, exploratory drilling in the Karish offshore field was completed mid-May. Hardly a week later, Noble Energy, the company developing Karish, announced that the field contains potential gas reserves that could reach two trillion cubic feet (TCF).

This marks the seventh discovery by this same company in the eastern Mediterranean. On the whole, the gas reserves discovered in Israel so far – including the recent adjustments to the estimates of the reserves held by the Tamar and Leviathan fields – now amount to about 38 TCF.

This is all good news for Tel Aviv, which has even begun considering exporting its newfound wealth. Not so, however, for Lebanon. The new field is sufficiently close to Lebanon’s maritime borders to allow Israel access to Lebanon’s own reserves. It’s evident that Israel is pressing ahead with exploration and production, while Lebanon’s own energy plans falter.

On Friday, Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil addressed these concerns in a press conference. “Theoretically…Israel is now able to reach Lebanese gas and that is a very grave situation,” he said. To deal with it, Bassil added, Lebanon must press ahead with its plans by holding an extraordinary cabinet session to approve the two urgent decrees related to the demarcation of offshore blocks and exploration and production agreements (EPA).

The Karish northern offshore fields is 4 km away from the Lebanese border and Lebanese block 8.

“We cannot yet say that a disaster has happened,” said Bassil. But the new Israeli discovery may indeed lead to one, especially if Lebanon’s efforts continue to be plagued by delays. If Israel drills horizontally in Karish – made possible thanks to US technology – Bassil said, it may be able to reach up to 10 km north into Lebanon’s reservoirs. If Israel drills vertically, it would still be possible for Israel to syphon off Lebanese oil and gas, if the Israeli and Lebanese fields overlap.

Bassil’s concerns are therefore logical, though they have yet to materialize. At any rate, this development should act as an incentive for the Lebanese side to move forward. After 46 international companies passed the pre-qualification round last April, the first licensing round was launched on May 2, and will last for six months.

During this period, the participating companies will hold meetings with the Lebanese side – the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Petroleum Administration – to negotiate over EPAs and the division of offshore blocks. There are ten blocks ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 km² in size, making up the 22,000 km² Lebanese exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“In order for Lebanon to defend its right to its natural resources, especially against Israel, a country famous for piracy, it must at the very least respect its own plans and timetables,” explained Lebanese energy expert Rabie Yaghi. He then added, “When approving the decrees on EPAs and offshore blocks, and then granting concessions, exploration and drilling must begin in the southernmost part of the EEZ, because there are no sovereign issues in the north or the center.”Meanwhile, the main issue
between Lebanon and Israel over the incorrect demarcation of maritime borders between the Jewish state and Cyprus has yet to be resolved. As a result, 860 km² has been carved out of Lebanon’s EEZ.

Rabie Taghi continued, “Israel will survey its entire EEZ, whether near our borders or at the borders of Gaza and Egypt. Every discovery is value added for the Israeli economy.” Indeed, in commenting on the discovery in Karish, Yossi Abu, CEO of Delek Drilling, Noble Energy’s partner, told Haaretz, “The experience in the world and in Israel proves that when you search for more gas, you find more gas.”

Returning to Bassil, the minister stressed that Lebanon has the ability to defend its resources, adding,“The equation of the state, the army, and the resistance is an element of strength for Lebanon.” In his view, Israel has no interest in encroaching on Lebanese reservoirs.

But are there local interest groups that would like to see work in the energy sector delayed further? According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, Bassil will make extensive visits next week to those concerned in the sector.

On Friday, Bassil said that he would reach out to the caretaker prime minister and the president to convince them to hold an extraordinary cabinet session. He also plans to contact parliamentary blocs to introduce an urgent law for an amended tax code that would allow Lebanon to benefit more from its resources, beyond what the current law allows.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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