BEIRUT: Caretaker Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil urged politicians Wednesday to end a dispute that has blocked the passage of key oil and gas legislation, while reiterating that he would not change the Jan. 10 date for the offshore gas auction.“We are determined to complete the international auction and take it to its completion on Jan. 10, 2014. We are endeavoring to ensure the success of the auction. Once the conditions become ripe, the auction will be completed, the results analyzed and negotiations with the winning companies finalized. Then we will return to the Cabinet to take the proper decisions,” Bassil told a conference on oil and gas at the Phoenicia Hotel.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has repeatedly refused to hold an extraordinary session to pass two decrees needed to proceed with exploration, insisting the move is unconstitutional and lacks political consensus.
“The Cabinet still refuses to meet its commitments for reasons which we don’t know,” Bassil said.
He said although the Lebanese were accustomed to political bickering, the foreign oil firms which have invested millions of dollars to acquire the data and have put their trust in Lebanon would not understand the reasons for the delay in passing the decrees.
The minister revealed that the initial results of the 2-D onshore oil survey were very encouraging.
“The first draft law for onshore oil will be prepared before the end of this year and this will be immediately followed by preparations of decrees,” Bassil said.
Some of the oil companies have expressed their frustration over the continued delay in passing the decrees but refrained for the time being from pulling out from the auction.
Bassil warned that failing to pursue oil and gas exploration soon would be disastrous, adding that further delay would serve the interest of Israel.
He reiterated that the ministry had estimated that 45 percent of Lebanon’s territorial waters had 96 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves and 850 million barrels of oil.
“Once the surveyed areas turn into exploration zones then the discovered reserves will increase our financial capabilities and improve our ranking even if oil and gas are still buried under the sea,” Bassil said.
He emphasized that gas exploration would create jobs for Lebanese.
“According to the contracts in the decrees, around 80 percent of the staff hired by the international oil companies should be Lebanese.”
Other key speakers at the opening day of the conference echoed the minister’s concerns about the continued delay in tapping potential reserves.
Francois Bassil, the president of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, said that Lebanese banks were willing to meet the financial needs of international oil companies that are engaged in oil and gas exploration.
“As far as the banks are concerned, we are ready to serve the financial needs of the oil companies that are exploring oil and gas. We can cover all types of transactions such as internal payments and ensure cash transfers between the companies and suppliers,” Bassil said.
He added that the oil revenues would stimulate the economy, create more jobs and inject new income into the state.
“The projected oil revenues will not only wipe out the public debt gradually but will induce the Treasury to borrow less money from the market and even to stop this practice completely,” the banker said.
He called on politicians to keep the oil sector out of their quarrels for the sake of the country.
Mohammad Choucair, the head of the Beirut Chambers of Commerce, noticed that oil wealth in Lebanon had become a bone of contention among the politicians.
“The bitter Lebanese experience leaves no room for optimism. However, beware this time from wasting this opportunity because this will be our last chance to revitalize the fragile economy,” Choucair said.
He cautioned that Lebanon had become a social and economic time bomb and the political division, instability and the huge number of refugees were making matters worse.
“For God’s sake let the oil flow for the benefit of the country and its citizens. The country needs exceptional energy that will catapult it to the ranks of advanced states.”