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Cabinet agrees to lease electricity-generating ships, build power plants

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, right, heads a Cabinet session at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The Cabinet agreed Wednesday during a marathon session to lease for a maximum of three years power-generating ships to produce 270 megawatts and to the construction of 1,500-megawatt power plants. The deal spared the Cabinet a confrontation among its members, particularly between ministers loyal to Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and those allied with Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Energy Minister Gibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, had originally proposed leasing two power-generating ships, which have a capacity of close to 300 MW.

However, Mikati had expressed reservations over Bassil’s proposal, arguing that the cost of renting the ships would be too great, a claim denied by Bassil’s camp.

Mikati presented an offer from a foreign company to build a power-generating plant within a year at a cost less than leasing the ships proposed under Bassil’s plan. Bassil struck back Tuesday, saying that Mikati’s proposal lacked “seriousness and professionalism,” and predicting dire consequences should his proposal be rejected in favor of the prime minister’s.

In a deal reached by the Cabinet Wednesday evening, it was agreed that a ministerial committee will negotiate prices and conditions for contracts to be offered to the companies renting out the ships, a demand that had been consistently rejected by Bassil.

Under the agreement, ships will supply electricity to the country for three years.

The Cabinet also agreed to “accelerate the construction of 1,500-megawatt power plants,” including finalizing studies, preparing specification handbooks and electricity infrastructure, securing needed funds and taking measures to facilitate the participation of the private sector.

Lebanon suffers a severe shortage in electricity. Bassil, who had previously warned that the country could suffer severe electricity rationing of almost 12 hours a day if his plan wasn’t approved, said the country’s demand in the summer was expected to rise to 3,000 megawatts per day. Energy production currently stands at below 1,500 MW per day.

Speaking during a news conference Tuesday, Bassil said that Aoun’s ministers would resign if the government remained “unproductive.”

“We shouldn’t take it for granted that the government won’t resign. Do you think we’ll remain in an unproductive government?” he asked.

During the Cabinet session, which lasted for around six hours under President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace, the president said that a solution is impending on the issue of private hospitals, which began a week-long strike Monday, refusing to treat patients who are covered by the National Social Security Fund. The president highlighted the importance of addressing social demands and following up on the issue of spoiled food, voicing his relief that business in the tourism industry picked up again following the state’s crackdown on spoiled food.

Sleiman said the demands of the Beirut and Tripoli Bar Associations to appoint a head for the Higher Judicial Council would be addressed soon, and that Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi had begun preparations to appoint a head of the body.

Sleiman and Aoun are currently at loggerheads over the appointment. The Beirut and Tripoli Bar Associations held a strike Monday in protest against the delay in appointing a head for the body whose term expires in June.

However, the Cabinet made modest progress in appointments during the meeting, naming Antoine Gibran as the head of Human Resources Unit in the Council of Civil Service, Nathalie Yared as the head of the Research and Guidance Management Unit in the same council and Mona Awwad in the post of the director general of ministerial affairs in the directorate general of the prime minister’s office. Political bickering has prevented major appointments.

The Cabinet approved five draft laws to conduct an audit on state spending between the years 2006 and 2010 inclusively. – With additional reporting by Nafez Kawwas

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2012, on page 1.

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