Lebanon’s offshore gas: Don’t hold your breath

Beirutis have been forced to hold their noses for weeks amid a politically charged trash crisis. Mounds of refuse have put an unwelcome dampener on the city’s summer, with foul smells infiltrating offices and homes, bars and restaurants at the peak of the tourist pilgrimage to the Middle East’s favourite garrison of hedonism. So dire is the crisis that airlines reportedly voiced concerns over trash piling up along a runway at Rafiq al-Hariri International airport, drawing birds into the flight path.

Dysfunctional politics led to a series of problems — the main landfill site closed without a replacement lined up, the garbage collector’s contract expired and the government is too weak to find a long-term solution.  An activist group called Tola’at Rehetkom — which translates its name into English as “You Stink” — has organised a series of protests over the past week, and its list of grievances is extensive. While it’s too soon to tell if the group will affect Lebanese politics, it’s clear that a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with political paralysis, corruption and, well, holding their breath.

The Lebanese also have a long wait ahead before the first exploration wells are spudded offshore — and an even longer wait before potential oil and gas riches translate into a high-speed rail line, as the energy ministry once insinuated. In 2013, a total of 46 firms pre-qualified for rights to bid for either operator or non-operator status, including Shell, Total, ExxonMobil and Chevron. But the bid round has stalled, trapped in the vortex of Lebanon’s near-perfect political vacuum and its contentious day-to-day politics.

For more than two years, the only real obstacle in the way of the energy ministry closing its round has been two cabinet decrees — one governing fiscal terms and the other delineating offshore blocks. But the cabinet rarely meets, and when it does, there’s nearly always a bigger fire that needs fighting. The pattern shows no sign of relenting, which leaves the bid round in limbo. No further progress towards the bid round can be expected until after parliament elects a new president of the republic, still a distant prospect nearly 16 months after Michel Suleiman’s six-year term expired.

And that does not even take into account that the market is currently unsupportive of the type of investment Lebanon will offer international oil firms — exploration of virgin deep waters. Oil majors have put billions of dollars of spending on expensive projects on ice since oil prices started to tumble last year.

Industry events have been held in rapid succession over the past half-decade, fueled by high hopes for a transformational hydrocarbons discovery. A 2011 iteration, the largest yet, saw hundreds of oil and gas executives gather at the Le Royal Hotel north of Beirut. Rock-licking geologists eagerly put tongue to ground on a field trip to Chekka, just north of Batroun’s seaside bars and nightclubs. Not a single geologist appeared particularly impressed by the mineral or chemical content of that Phoenician limestone, however. In reality, most of what the energy ministry has accomplished thus far in its drive to attract investment in offshore oil and gas exploration amounts to little more than a PR campaign.

But the bid round process is flawed at an even more fundamental level, as it has taken years for officials to wrap their heads around the inconvenient fact that Lebanon has not yet “discovered” a drop of oil or a whiff of gas. At each event, ministers and officials hail “discoveries” of more than 90 trillion ft³ (2.5 trillion m³), even before a single exploration well is drilled. While this baffles the well-versed industry officials in attendance, it plays well on Lebanese television.

The Petroleum Administration, designed to manage the bid round and relations with foreign oil companies, is itself a symptom of Lebanon’s wider political woes. It took more than a year for the government to name six inaugural board members to the new administration, finally concluded in late 2012, in large part because the board must represent six separate groups — Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Melkite. While two of the six have strong oil backgrounds, several bring entirely irrelevant skillsets to the table and two hardly speak a word of English, the lingua franca of the oil industry. As expected, the Petroleum Administration has been mostly ineffective, further handicapped by political indecision higher up the chain.

Oh, and just to add to the mess, in this neighbourhood, there is the inevitable geopolitical angle. Three of the proposed blocks — 8, 9 and 10 — partially overlap with Israel’s maritime claim. Despite US mediation, the two sides have made little progress towards resolving a dispute over 854km² of offshore territory.

Don’t hold your breath.

For more information, please contact OilBlog@argusmedia.com