BEIRUT: The Future parliamentary bloc entered the fray over the oil controversy Tuesday by calling for the swift formation of a new government to handle Lebanon’s oil and gas wealth after accusing the caretaker Cabinet of involvement in “suspicious deals.”
In a strongly worded statement rejecting demands by caretaker Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil to hold a special Cabinet session to approve two decrees needed to kick off oil exploration, the bloc stressed that a strategic and important issue such as the country’s oil wealth should be left to the new government.
The bloc lashed out at what it called “a political and media campaign” launched by the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance aimed at accelerating the government’s licensing of foreign companies interested in oil drilling and exploration in Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
“The issue of oil wealth, which is a national wealth, is one of the essential strategic issues for Lebanon which should not be the subject of haste, improvisation and hollow one-upmanship,” the bloc said after its weekly meeting chaired by former premier Fouad Siniora at former premier Saad Hariri’s residence in Downtown Beirut.
“[Oil wealth] is highly important and should be surrounded by national and reliable guarantees with a high level of transparency, free of political goals and partisan interests,” it added.
The bloc said Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet, which had been acting in a caretaker capacity since it resigned in March, could not constitutionally decide on “this important strategic matter” that would affect the fate of the country for years to come.
“Therefore, handling this issue and other national issues demands quick action to form a government with full powers ... especially since this Cabinet has, since it was formed, engaged in domineering behavior ... and struck suspicious deals,” it said.
“Consequently, those who are keen on national interest must act quickly to facilitate the formation of a new government that can enjoy Parliament’s confidence and later accomplish this important economic feat,” it added. The Future bloc’s stance comes as rival politicians locked horns over whether a special Cabinet session should be held to endorse the two decrees to assign the oil blocks for foreign companies to begin drilling and exploration in Lebanon’s territorial waters.
Mikati, citing a lack of consensus among ministers, has rejected Bassil’s repeated calls to hold a special Cabinet session to approve the two decrees.
Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun have repeatedly called for the caretaker Cabinet to convene and approve the oil decrees and issues licenses for Lebanon’s EEZ in an attempt to benefit from Lebanon’s oil and gas wealth. MP Walid Jumblatt said Monday he supported a Cabinet session to discuss the oil issue.
However, Sleiman, Mikati and Aoun’s Christian opponents reportedly oppose a Cabinet session to endorse the oil decrees because this would provide the FPM leader and Bassil with political gains in Christian areas. Furthermore, some Future and March 14 politicians said they do not trust Bassil to handle the vital oil sector after accusing him, along with other ministers in Aoun’s bloc, of corruption and wrongdoings.
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.
The Future bloc slammed the caretaker Cabinet’s performance, saying that corruption was rampant in the administration, transparency was absent and nepotism prevailed in government departments as a result of practices by some ministers.
Citing severe electricity rationings under Bassil, the Future bloc emphasized that “an issue as important as oil wealth should be put in the hands of a new government that can win Parliament’s confidence.”
The bloc urged Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to act to form a government as soon as possible and ignore “repeated threats” by some Hezbollah officials to dissuade them from performing their constitutional duties on the Cabinet formation.
For his part, Aoun renewed his call for the Cabinet to meet to approve the two oil decrees, saying that Lebanon’s economic salvation lay with the extraction of its oil wealth from beneath the seabed. He said the oil issue dominated the weekly meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc he chaired at his Rabieh residence.
“It is unacceptable to ignore this [oil] issue, especially since we know that Lebanon’s economic salvation lies in the oil extraction. All Lebanese are waiting,” for the oil issue to be resolved, Aoun told reporters after the meeting.
Referring to the extension of Parliament’s mandate and the Army commander’s term, he said: “They are extending the postponement of oil extraction exactly as they had extended the mandate of Parliament and some individuals. Everything that relates to gas and oil is being obstructed starting with the gas line that must begin from the north to the south.”
Aoun asked whether the obstruction of the oil exploration was intended to deny his bloc the credit for “achievements to revitalize Lebanon’s economy and bring it back to the phase of prosperity.”
Referring to the rival parties’ conflicting demands over the licensing of foreign companies to begin gas and oil exploration, he said: “Let the Cabinet meet so that we can find out who is opposing this matter and what are the reasons for the opposition.”
Responding to those who oppose a Cabinet session on oil, Aoun added: “Are they playing with us and with the Lebanese people on the grounds that the economic situation in Lebanon is good? Why is this [oil] issue being obstructed at a time when legal experts agree that the Cabinet can legally meet to take a decision?”