The irony is hard to miss as Lebanon stands on the verge of an unprecedented energy boom, even as the threat of war stalks the country and its people.
As recent discoveries have made abundantly clear, the entire eastern Mediterranean region has a great future awaiting it, one richer and more harmonious than any we have known in centuries. Not just Lebanon but also several of its neighbors – including Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Palestine – stand to reap enormous rewards from the oil and (especially) gas deposits under the seabed.
The precise level of recoverable reserves will vary, but thanks to this valuable resource, all of our citizens can reasonably expect that within a few years both direct and indirect benefits will begin a flow that lasts for generations.
Meeting most or all of our respective domestic energy needs will be a massive breakthrough in itself, but even that will pale beside the fortunes to be had when the countries of the region are able collectively to serve as reliable partners for a veritable renaissance in Europe, one fueled by plentiful and relatively cheap hydrocarbons that revive the continent’s competitiveness and productivity.
Most of these hydrocarbon sales will take place via the “Peace Pipe,” a natural gas pipeline emanating from Cyprus in its new role as an energy hub. The pipeline will carry gas from Cyprus to Greece and Italy, and from there to markets across much of Europe.
In addition to the Peace Pipe, related infrastructure, and various support activities, the new energy hub will also feature a state-of-the-art liquefied natural gas plant whose output will be shipped to customers – primarily electricity producers – located within the eastern Mediterraneanor too far from the route of the pipeline, particularly in North, East and southern Africa.
The revenues generated will be a game changer of historic proportions, not just by fueling a European recovery, but also by opening a new era of socioeconomic progress across the eastern Mediterranean.
Provided the process is properly planned, regulated and managed to ensure balanced development, environmental protection and fair distribution of revenues, there will be substantial sums available for investment in education, health care, vital infrastructure and thriving sovereign wealth funds.
Poverty will be brought to its knees, and standards of living will rise across the board. Models like Norway’s (the value of whose hydrocarbon-fed SWF is now approaching $750 billion) are there for the adopting and implementing. For societies that have spent most of the past few decades just getting by or staggering from crisis to crisis, a whole new reality beckons.
The only real question is: When will we be able to start enjoying these blessings?
This question is crucial because the answer will affect not just you, me and our families, nor even all of our respective compatriots, but in fact tens or even hundreds of millions of people not yet born. What happens in the coming months and years will determine how much of that wealth is squandered, how much is available for intelligent investments and when we all start living better lives.
Right now the eyes of the region – and much of the world – are transfixed on the tragedy unfolding in Syria and threatening to engulf Lebanon, but other countries have been affected as well, and many of us have already been held back by our own internal or external disputes. If we are not careful, the very resources under discussion might become yet another point of contention that delays progress for all concerned.
Luckily, we don’t have to settle all of our differences in order to start reaping the rewards of the energy boom. Provided that our governments and other key political actors can be convinced to behave themselves, oil and gas exploration, extraction, processing and delivery can all be made possible in the next few years.
Once the hydrocarbon revenues start flowing, many of our differences will be easier to resolve; at all costs, therefore, we must prevent our troubled past from sabotaging our promising future.
It is this endeavor that has to get underway at the earliest opportunity. The heavy lifting of full reconciliation can wait, but the avoidance of new animosities and the building of trust have to start now.
One way to help instill this new spirit is to accept the fact that whatever our current differences, the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean are destined to be partners in the oil and gas business. The realities of the industry and of local geography and geology mean, quite simply, that it makes no sense for each country to have its own individual collection, processing and/or distribution facilities. Instead, we should all feed a single hub that will then send our collective product to customers.
Cyprus is the only logical place for that hub, for it alone enjoys the prerequisite geographical and political positions to host both the Peace Pipe and the region’s LNG facility. Cyprus alone has the attributes necessary to become the linchpin for the region’s new energy economy, including its status as an EU member state, its head start in terms of institutional preparedness and its location, to mention but a few.
In many quarters of the European Union, there is already strong support for Cyprus to play such a role, and regional acceptance would only accelerate the process. Never has there been a more obvious need for friends, rivals and even enemies to forget what divides them and focus on the goals and dreams they share for their respective societies.
For much of recent history, a cruel combination of prized geography and poor leadership has allowed outside forces to divide the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. What we have now is not just an opportunity to craft a new destiny for our children and grandchildren: Instead, we have a moral imperative to seize that destiny with both hands.
For me personally, it is gratifying to know that my own homeland, Lebanon, will eventually know better days because of the treasures off its coast. I have to believe that it is just a matter of time before all of the political factions in question set aside their differences and unite in support of a badly needed economic recovery, one that could be buttressed by almost a trillion dollars over the coming quarter century.
In order for this to happen, my fondest hope is that both in Lebanon and in neighboring countries, cooler heads and diplomacy will prevail – and sooner rather than later. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other international bodies could be of tremendous assistance in mediating disputes, enabling a new phase of energy security, steady economic growth and political stability.
Ultimately, however, the decisions that allow a viable future for the region will have to be taken by the people who live here.
Roudi Baroudi is the CEO of Energy and Environment Holding, an independent consultancy in Doha, and the former secretary-general for the World Energy Council Lebanon Member Committee.