BEIRUT: Rival politicians continued to wrangle Monday over whether a special Cabinet session should be held to approve two decrees needed to launch the exploration of oil fields off the Lebanese coast, dashing hopes for cash-strapped Lebanon to benefit from its oil and gas wealth in the near future.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, citing a lack of consensus within the Cabinet, has rejected repeated calls by caretaker Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil to hold a special Cabinet session to endorse two decrees to assign the oil blocks for foreign companies to begin drilling and exploration in Lebanon’s territorial waters.
Sources at the Grand Serail said Mikati was not ready to call his resigned Cabinet for an extraordinary meeting unless there was a consensus in advance among Cabinet members on the decrees pertaining to oil exploration.
“Mikati sees no benefit from calling a Cabinet session that would be a recipe for a dispute, thus adding a new crisis to the other crises in the country,” a source told The Daily Star.
The source denied reports that President Michel Sleiman and Mikati were not in favor of holding such a Cabinet session. The source voiced fears that “personal demands” might be behind those demanding an urgent Cabinet session to approve the two oil decrees.
A meeting between Sleiman and Mikati that was to be held at Baabda Palace Monday to discuss the possibility of convening a special Cabinet session on the oil decrees and the payment of Lebanon’s share to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been postponed.
Al-Manar TV said Mikati was in contact with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour to push for an oil session, adding that Mikati and Sleiman were in agreement on the need to hold a Cabinet session on oil.
But caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said the outlook for a Cabinet meeting on the oil decrees was still unclear. “It’s guess work, nothing else,” Abboud, who belongs to MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, told The Daily Star.
He rejected Mikati’s argument that consensus was needed first before a Cabinet session could be held to act on the oil decrees. “Mikati’s stance is unacceptable. Consensus is far from democracy. It is a consensus of interests,” Abboud said.
Asked why the caretaker Cabinet cannot meet to endorse the two oil decrees, Abboud said: “There are political and financial motives behind the obstruction of a Cabinet session to approve the two decrees.”
He added that the Cabinet failure to act on the oil decrees would further delay the exploitation of Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas resources badly needed to address the country’s nearly $60 billion public debt. Earlier this year, Lebanon officially launched its first oil and gas licensing round with 46 international energy companies prequalifying to bid for offshore exploration contracts.
However, the Cabinet must convene to pass two decrees demarcating 10 maritime oil exploration blocks and establishing a revenue-sharing model before oil and gas contracts can be awarded.
An oil expert explained that the first decree is “a tender protocol and exploration and production agreement,” while the second decree divides Lebanon’s territorial waters into 10 blocks.
“The 10 blocks cover Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone,” the expert told The Daily Star, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The Cabinet’s approval of the two decrees will open the door to companies to come forth with their bids about the blocks in which they are interested.”
Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, could not be reached for comment on the widening oil controversy. But in an interview with MTV Monday night, Bassil accused political parties whom he did not name of putting “their conditions and concerns” regarding the oil exploration.
He rejected Speaker Nabih Berri’s demand for fully licensing the 10 blocks all at once. “Oil cannot be extracted all at once,” he said.
Bassil last week postponed for the second time the oil and gas auction from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10, 2014, after Lebanon failed to endorse the two decrees. He said he had sent letters to Sleiman and Mikati, urging them to hold an extraordinary Cabinet session to approve the two decrees.
Political sources said Sleiman, Mikati and Aoun’s Christian opponents oppose a Cabinet session to endorse the oil decrees because this would give the Free Patriotic Movement leader and Bassil a major political boost in Christian areas. Furthermore, some Future and March 14 politicians who had accused Bassil of corruption, prefer that the oil issue be left to the new government.
MP Walid Jumblatt warned that Lebanon’s oil wealth was in jeopardy because of political bickering. Speaking in a TV interview, he said he supported a Cabinet session to discuss the oil issue. “All neighboring countries have preceded Lebanon in this matter,” Jumblatt said, referring to Cyprus and Israel.
The British-based company Spectrum, which conducted a 3-D seismic survey off the southern coast of Lebanon, estimated the country’s offshore gas wealth to be at least 25 trillion cubic feet, adding that there was more gas in the northern parts of the country as well.
Some experts estimate the value of gas in Lebanon to range between $300 billion to $600 billion, not to mention the prospects of oil onshore.
Meanwhile, Sleiman expressed hope that the rival factions would seize the opportunity to form a new government in light of recent international support for Lebanon during talks in New York last month.
Sleiman discussed with MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, at Baabda Palace the ongoing contacts to form a new Cabinet.
Ahead of his meeting with Sleiman, Raad warned that no government could be formed if it dropped the tripartite equation, “The Army, the people and the resistance,” from its policy statement.
The Future Movement and its March 14 allies have rejected this equation and called instead for the “Baabda Declaration” to be adopted as the new Cabinet’s policy statement.
“If the Cabinet formation is tied to the termination of the ‘Army, people and resistance’ equation, then they will have to wait for a long time,” Raad said during a ceremony in the Bekaa Valley village of Yohmor. – With additional reporting by Hasan Lakkis