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Feud over gas licensing widens as groups quarrel over mechanism

File - Water and Energy ministry building is seen in Beirut, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s efforts to tap its offshore gas and oil reserves received another setback over the weekend as the two main political groups that make up the caretaker Cabinet quarreled openly over the mechanism for gas tenders.

Caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a member of the Amal Movement’s political bureau, blasted caretaker Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil for refusing to put up for auction all 10 of Lebanon’s gas blocks off the coast.

Khalil also suggested that Bassil may have bowed to external pressure when he designated only five of the 10 blocks.

He further accused the energy minister of favoritism for starting an onshore gas survey in his hometown of Batroun, rather than another part of the country.

Khalil noted that Amal was not demanding that all 10 blocks be fully operation in one shot.

“We are only saying that we let international oil firms select some of the 10 blocks. Let us open all of the blocks and let them [companies] choose some of them,” the minister explained.

This view was also backed by Britain-based survey firm Spectrum, which said that opening all 10 blocks for bidding was more advisable.

Bassil, however, insisted that the Petroleum Administration had already designated the five blocks that would be put up for auction, adding that most countries do not auction off all of their blocks in the first round of tenders.

His press office said he would hold a news conference Friday to explain in a scientific manner why it was advisable to auction only five of the 10 blocks.

Regarding the location of the selected fields, Khalil also questioned why Bassil refused to open gas blocks near the Israeli maritime border for auction, hinting that the minister may have heeded the advice of some foreign powers.

Lebanon and Israel are at loggerheads over an 850 kilometer area that contains a rich gas field in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Oil firms have made it clear they are not willing to explore in the disputed territorial waters, according to Spectrum.

Lebanon has sought the help of the U.S. and the U.N. to demarcate the disputed zone in order to determine the where the maritime border falls.

Diplomatic sources have told The Daily Star that the U.S. is mediating between Lebanon and Israel in an attempt to reach a solution over the disputed territory.

The discord between Khalil and Bassil has complicated efforts to hold an urgent meeting of the caretaker Cabinet to pass two decrees still needed to proceed with exploration and set a model for revenue sharing.

Bassil has postponed the auction from Dec. 10, 2013, to Jan. 10, 2014, to give officials ample time to pass the two decrees.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2013, on page 5.

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