By Patrick Galey
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

BEIRUT: The U.N. may be able to assist Lebanon in protecting oil and gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean from Israeli exploitation, the organization’s special coordinator said Monday.

Michael Williams’ remarks followed a request from Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a weekend meeting with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the U.N. safeguards Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone, which may contain billions of cubic meters of fossil fuel.

Williams held talks Monday with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami and Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish to discuss the possibility of the U.N. providing support in delineating Lebanon’s maritime borders.

“There may be a role for the U.N. and we have to discuss it with the U.N.’s lawyers in New York,” Williams told reporters. “But I think it is important that this issue move forward.”

Following his meeting with Shami, Williams added: “The minister raised with me the issue of the delimitation of Lebanon’s borders and the potential oil and gas resources. I stressed the position of the U.N. that Lebanon has every right to benefit from any natural resources that may be found in the waters off its coast.”

Shami sent a letter to New York last week asking for U.N. support in preventing Israel tapping oil and gas resources under the eastern Mediterranean seabed. A private petrochemical company has estimated the amount of fossil fuel reserves in Israeli waters to be 450 billion cubic meters; Minister of State Adnan Qassar said Lebanon’s share should prove to be significantly greater.

Lebanon claims it submitted detailed coordinates to the U.N. last year stating the boundary of its exclusive economic zone in which oil and gas is contained.

Williams admitted that Lebanon and Israel’s state of war made border demarcation a particularly thorny issue.

“Regarding the delimitation of the borders, normally this requires the agreement of all parties. But this is something that is obviously difficult in the case of Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel,” he said. “I promised the minister that I would come back and see him in the coming weeks to discuss this further.”

But Shami accused Israel Monday of breaking international law by allowing energy firms to explore for offshore gas in the absence of a sea border agreement.

Shami told Reuters in an interview that no company should be allowed to operate in waters off Lebanon and Israel, which remain in a formal state of war, until their territorial waters were internationally recognized.

The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (Unifil) told The Daily Star last week that it was not responsible for assisting Lebanon in maritime border delineation, in spite of its ongoing help in demarcating the Blue Line – the land boundary between Israel and Lebanon.

“While it is not within Unifil’s mandate to delineate these borders, the U.N. stands ready, if requested, to assist Lebanon in taking the necessary steps in that direction,” Williams said.

A member of Hariri’s delegation to New York told Reuters that the Prime Minister had asked the U.N. to ensure the full implementation of Resolution

1701, which provides that Lebanon’s sovereign borders not be breached.

Hariri also “requested the utmost pressure on Israel to cease its violations in the air, on land and at sea. He also said Lebanon is relying on the U.N. to prevent Israeli infringement of Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone, including regarding oil and gas resources,” the source said.

The government has come under criticism for failing to act decisively on obtaining necessary legal provisions to commence exploring the area.

Beirut M.P. Ammar Houri said Monday that Lebanon had sanctioned geological surveys in the vicinity as long ago as 2000. A 2007 agreement between Lebanon and Norway was struck, and Norwegian firm P.G.S. surveyed an area of 2,350 square kilometers of Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone, according to Houri. “The results were better than expected since it implied that there were good signs and possibilities of having oil and hydrocarbon deposits in the economic zone,” he added.

In 2008, under the supervision of former Energy Minister Alain Tabourian, a parliamentary committee was created to discuss the formulation of an oil law. Houri accused Tabourian of wasting time and failing to convince a new government that the draft legislation contained any worthwhile provisions. Nothing has been agreed on a governmental level concerning oil and natural gas reserves, Houri confirmed.