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Lebanon kicks off first onshore oil survey

Spectrum will use this advanced truck to collect oil and gas data onshore in Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The British foreign secretary joined Lebanon’s energy minister to launch the country’s first onshore seismic survey of potential hydrocarbon reserves Thursday, bringing the hunt for oil and gas inland for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Britain-based Spectrum was awarded the contract to collect 500 kilometers of 2-D seismic data last year after completing 2-D and 3-D seismic surveys of Lebanon’s offshore reserves and expects to begin work in portions of the northeast, the Bekaa Valley and in areas of the south surrounding Marjayoun within a few months.

Though Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged that there were complex issues to resolve concerning Lebanon’s disputed maritime border with Israel, he said this should not dissuade British companies from bidding on oil and gas contracts in the country.

“It is quite a complex picture across the entire Mediterranean, not just between Lebanon and Israel,” he said. “So there are those difficulties to be resolved, but clearly that is not stopping preparation for extraction and the course of important discovery work.”

In light of the high prospects for offshore reserves and the level of interest from international companies that have paid “multimillion dollars” for seismic data of the Mediterranean basin, Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil said expanding the search for oil and gas resources into Lebanese territory was the natural next step.

“In the past three years, we managed to pass the offshore Petroleum Law, issued all necessary regulations, and covered our entire maritime waters with 2-D and 3-D seismic surveys,” Bassil said. “We appointed a petroleum administration, launched a prequalification round, and announced the opening of the first licensing round on May 2, 2013.”

The onshore survey is the latest prong in the quest to turn Lebanon into “an oil hub of the region,” Bassil said, “diversifying our hydrocarbon resources and reducing our energy dependency and oil bill.”

Though Spectrum has not started the survey yet and Lebanon still lacks legislation governing onshore oil exploration – the existing law dates back to the French Mandate – the vice president of Spectrum in the Middle East, David Rowlands, said Thursday’s event was nevertheless, “groundbreaking.”

“He announced to the world his intention to open up onshore exploration in Lebanon after focusing on offshore oil and gas for so long,” Rowlands told The Daily Star.

Rowland’s said Spectrum had already conducted two scouting missions. The company is in the process of obtaining municipal permits and permission from landowners and expects to being surveying within a few months.

The work will be done with a vibro-seismic vehicle that determines the potential reserves below ground by measuring the time it takes the vibrations to penetrate the geological layers.

Spectrum will also begin drafting an environmental impact assessment to present to Parliament, but he said conducting the 2-D survey would be minimally disruptive to peoples’ lives.

The truck, which is about the size of an RV, looks like a mobile science lab, and sounds like a cement mixer, will do nothing more than possibly cause traffic, Rowlands said.

“This is the first stage,” he said. “It’s way too early to start making the estimates of the hydrocarbons. That will probably take a year or so. Then it’s up to the government to pass the necessary legislation and invite foreign companies to bid for contracts.”

Though Lebanon won’t have to contend with competing claims from Israel in onshore exploration, one audience member said that a handful of families who were given exploration concessions in Lebanon back in the 1920s, which they have not used in at least 50 years, may contest the government’s attempts to extract the black gold.

That too, however, is far off, and Bassil dismissed such concerns: “We have a legal framework that existed and I think we are preparing a new one whereby this matter will be resolved legally, [giving] the Lebanese state full rights to deal with it properly.”

While it will be years before any drill penetrates Lebanese soil, Hague warned the government to seek national consensus now on how oil and gas revenues would be spent:

“That revenue, if well managed presents incredible opportunities for Lebanon in tackling national debt, in upgrading power, water, transport and communications infrastructure. All the things that are vital to economic development.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2013, on page 5.

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