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Progress in U.S. mediation on maritime border

Bassil: “We continue to hold on to our full rights regarding our waters and resources.”

BEIRUT: Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said Wednesday that U.S. mediation efforts to resolve a dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the demarcation of maritime borders were making some progress.

Both Lebanon and Israel claim a disputed maritime area of 874 square kilometers, which is thought to hold large reserves of natural gas, as a part of their respective exclusive economic zones.

“There is progress on this subject, in viewpoints at least, as we continue to hold on to our full rights regarding our waters and resources,” Bassil told a news conference at the ministry’s offices in Beirut. “Sharing thoughts with a country involved in the region such as the United States with interest in the gas issue is in Lebanon’s interest and its stability.”

Despite the disagreement on maritime borders, experts say Lebanon could still tap the natural gas wealth in 22,000 square kilometers of its EEZ without risking a conflict with Israel, since the majority of deposits are outside the relatively small disputed area.

However, the Lebanese state has failed so far to approve decrees to launch the first bidding round for the offshore oil and gas licensing.

Since the resignation of the government earlier this year, politicians have been at odds over whether it falls within the prerogatives of a caretaker government to endorse decrees needed before an oil and gas auction.

Bassil, who had already delayed Lebanon’s oil and gas bidding process from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10 after the caretaker government failed to meet over the issue, called Wednesday for a Cabinet session.

One of the decrees is needed to demarcate the 10 designated oil and gas blocks for exploration and the other sets the legal framework governing the revenue-sharing model.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has yet to convene the Cabinet since its resignation, seems to share the position of the March 14 coalition, which argues that a caretaker government cannot decide on major issues such as those related to the country’s oil and gas wealth.

However, Bassil argued at the news conference that the endorsement of the two decrees was not a major decision but rather a procedural one to allow the ministry to go through with the auction.

“Afterward, an evaluation takes place before returning to the government to make a decision. ... Today, there are no contracts being awarded,” Bassil said.

Despite political obstacles, Lebanon managed to attract 46 Arab and international oil companies in the prequalification round of the bidding process.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 21, 2013, on page 5.

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