Tuesday, June 29, 2010


BEIRUT: Lebanon is accelerating efforts to introduce a new energy law, Lebanese officials said on Monday, in response to Israeli plans to drill for gas in Mediterranean waters.

The discovery of major gas reserves by a US-Israeli consortium off the coast of Israel has raised fears in Lebanon that its own potential reserves could be affected by Israeli drilling. The two countries, in a formal state of war, have no agreed sea border.

Lebanese Joint parliamentary committees approved on Monday the first article of a draft law to regulate offshore drilling for oil, as domestic parties pressed for the swift conclusion of discussions to guard Lebanese natural resources against Israeli designs.

“After general discussions of the proposal, joint parliamentary committees started discussing articles and approved the first clause concerning definitions before postponing the meeting to July 12,” said a statement that was issued following the meeting headed by Berri in Parliament.

MP Ali Hassan Khalil, who submitted the proposal to Parliament for discussion, said on Monday that the government should move quickly to establish the extent of its waters in order “to close the door to Israeli attempts to exploit a part of our oil resources.”

An agreement on the law will open the way for international firms to bid on exploration rights in its own waters.

The US-based Noble Energy has said that gas reserves in two Mediterranean fields, Tamar and Leviathan, were large enough to ensure Israel would become a major gas exporter.

Last year, Lebanon said it would investigate whether the Tamar field extended into Lebanese waters – a charge denied by one of the partners in the US-Israeli consortium – and said it was in the process of registering with the UN the delineation of its exclusive economic zone waters.

“We need to approve this quickly so we don’t lose time,” Energy and Water Minister Jebran Bassil said after a meeting of parliamentary committees to discuss the draft law. “I think we will work fast … to accelerate its approval.”

Bassil did not directly accuse Israel of infringing Lebanese waters or resources, but said his country would defend its interests. “We will protect our rights with all our strength,” he said.

But Nabil Qawouk, a leading Hizbullah official said the government was dragging its feet. “The Israeli enemy has started exploring for oil while Lebanon has started exploring an energy law,” he said in a statement.

Commenting on the domestic debate over the proposal proposal, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt urged parties to refrain from domestic disputes to prevent Israel from exploiting Lebanese divisions to serve its interests. “Why all this provoked noise? Let us first prove our legal right in oil fields and then study the best way to extract this natural wealth,” he said.

Three weeks ago the Noble-led consortium raised its reserve estimate at the Tamar field by 15 percent to 8.4-trillion cubic feet (238-billion cubic meters). Another Noble-led group said Leviathan had estimated deposits of 16-trillion cubic feet.

Also, ministers and lawmakers dismissed any dispute between the Cabinet and Parliament regarding the formulation of the draft law after the Cabinet has tasked a ministerial committee headed by Premier Saad Hariri to draft a law proposal.

“Speaker Nabih Berri stressed that the goal of Ali Hassan Khalil’s proposal was not to bicker with the Cabinet, but to speed up the approval of the law since Parliament and Cabinet are one team working toward approving the law,” said head of the Energy and Water parliamentary committee MP Mohammad Qabbani.

In remarks published by the daily As-Safir on Monday, Berri said “when Cabinet approves the draft law on oil drilling, it would be compared to the one being discussed by parliamentary committees for similarities or contradictions.”

“Then the committees will work on coordinating both proposals to reach one joint formula,” Berri added.

According to the Lebanese Constitution, either the Cabinet or a minimum of 10 lawmakers can submit law proposals to Parliament. But regardless of the side submitting the proposal, the draft law will have to go through discussions by parliamentary committees prior to being put to a vote.