Lebanon’s Gas Wars

Lebanon is likely to have major offshore gas reserves, yet exploitation has been hampered by internal political bickering and a looming border dispute with Israel. Whereas Egypt, Cyprus and Israel have installed the first gas platforms, Lebanon has still not completed the required legislation.

Lebanon has high hopes to tap into substantial offshore gas reserves and rightfully so. The United States Geological Survey in 2010 estimated that the Eastern Mediterranean between Syria, Cyprus and Egypt is arguably home to some 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas.

These promising prospects have been backed up by actual finds throughout the region. Egypt’s offshore gas industry has been up and running for years. Israel in 2012 inaugurated the 237 billion-cubic-meter (BCM) Tamar Field and hopes to tap into the 453 BCM Leviathan Field by 2016.

Cyprus started exploitation of the 226 BCM Aphrodite Field in 2011 and a year later signed exploration and production agreements for another 12 offshore blocks. The country is furthermore in talks with Israel to build a $6 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal.

The country is lagging light years behind its neighbors

No Hurries

Seismic surveying has shown that Lebanon has similar prospects. Now, certainly seeing the country’s gross public debt of nearly $65 billion, you would expect Lebanon to be in a rush to get its hands on the potential riches. Yet, sadly, the country is lagging light years behind its neighbors.  

As always, the country has been paralyzed by political infighting. While seismic surveying started as early as 2000, the country’s Offshore Petroleum Resources Law (OPRL) was only passed in 2010. It took another two years to ratify the legislation.

And, when Israel inaugurated its first offshore platform in 2012, Lebanon welcomed the Petroleum Administration (PA), the body charged with implementing the OPRL. Each of the PA’s six board members represents a different religion and is related to one of the country’s main political powerbrokers.

Interestingly, the OPRL calls for any future earnings to be deposited in a sovereign wealth fund, yet does not stipulate who will run the fund and how. Instead, it determines that a separate law must be passed to do just that, which may well take another 12 years.

Strangely, while every expert on the planet believes it wiser to launch a tender for a few blocks at a time, Lebanon insists on doing all ten designated blocks at once.


It was hoped 2013 would be the year of the great leap forward and the year started well enough. On April 18, the PA announced that 46 out of 52 companies, including Shell, Exxon-Mobil and Total, had qualified to bid for exploration and production agreements regarding 10 offshore blocks of up to 2300 square kilometer in size.

Bidding would have taken place one month later, were it not for the fact that former Prime Minister Nijab Mikati decided to resign. The cabinet stayed on in a caretaker capacity, yet proved unable to pass two crucial decrees to determine the exact boundaries of the ten designated blocks and the details concerning the production sharing agreements.

Lebanon’s highest judicial body, the Shura Council, declared the caretaker cabinet was legally allowed to pass the decrees, which would take “two minutes.” Still, that did not happen. As new political alliances had to be formed, no one dared take the risk to sit on the wrong side of the fence once the pie was to be divided.

The bidding was postponed first till January and then till April, 2014. Meanwhile, after 11 months of negotiations, Lebanon in February welcomed a new cabinet that, as expected, failed to come to an agreement regarding the two outstanding decrees on April 2.

Instead, a ministerial commission was established to “reexamine and study” the case. The commission consists of 8 members, who each belong to a different sect and represent a different political faction.


An additional and potentially even more explosive issue facing Lebanon are the boundaries of offshore block number 9, which are contested by Israel. While both countries agree that Ras al-Naqoura is the shared land border, they somehow seem unable to draw a straight line.

As a result, their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) include a disputed triangle measuring 870 square kilometers. Lebanon in 2010 submitted its claim to the United Nations. Israel followed suit, even though it never signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Lebanon does not have a navy

The United States have tried to mediate. According to Lebanese daily As Safir, the border dispute topped the agenda during a meeting on October 1 in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, the tension has been rising. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s “Party of God,” has warned on numerous occasions that it will retaliate against any Israeli attempt to “steal” Lebanon’s maritime resources. Likewise, Israel has warned it would use force to defend its gas fields.

On October 1, the Israel Aerospace Industries won a contract to supply the Israeli navy with three Super Dvora-class Mark III fast patrol craft to bolster maritime security. Their main function, according to a company press release, is to protect offshore Israel’s gas fields from seaborne attacks.

Lebanon does not have a navy. And if it continues at the current pace, it will not have any gas any time soon either.

NB Most of this article was previously published by The Business Year (in Review)

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Peter Speetjens (1967) woont sinds 1996 in Beiroet. Hij was correspondent voor Trouw en De Standaard, en publiceerde verhalen in onder andere De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC en Vrij Nederland. In 2004Πco-regiseerde hij de film 2000 Terrorists. Peter schrijft vooral over Libanon, de regio en de manier waarop zij gestalte krijgt in de media.