By Tamara Qiblawi
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Special laws and bureaucratic bodies must be formed in order to expedite gas and oil excavation off Lebanon’s coast, lawmakers and legal experts said at a gas and oil workshop held at Parliament Monday.

Lebanon faces a variety of legal and political hurdles that stand in the way of accessing gas reserves, but they can be overcome if the government undertakes strategic bureaucratic reform, the participants explained.
MP Mohammad Qabbani, head of Parliament’s Public Works, Transport and Energy committee, said he has been calling on the government to centralize all activities related gas and oil excavation. He said this could be accomplished by creating a government body to assign preliminary research projects, standardize licensing requirements for gas contractors, organize auctions for different phases of the excavation process, negotiate international agreements related to gas exploration and production and monitor the progress of contracted gas companies.

Qabbani said such a body would allow Lebanon to reap the benefits of an August 2010 law passed by Parliament which gave way to gas exploration projects. The much anticipated legislation follows a 2002 seismic survey that confirmed Lebanon’s potential for producing hydrocarbons.

Israel has already begun drilling off the coast of Haifa and Lebanese lawmakers fears that the Jewish state could expropriate natural gas on the Lebanese side of the maritime border.

The Israeli drilling exercises – led by the U.S. firm Noble Energy – revealed that up to $45 billion worth of resources, or 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, lay in the Levant Basin – the area between Lebanon, Cyprus and Occupied Palestine.

Last month, caretaker Energy and Water Minister Jibran Bassil enlisted French petroleum consulting firm Beicip-Franlab to prepare a tender which would allow companies to bid for the right to explore for oil and gas off of Lebanon’s coast.

Bassil has said that the licensing of gas explorers would begin by the end of 2012. Yet a number of political hurdles are likely to prolong the licensing process – namely that Lebanon’s maritime borders have never been delineated, and some lawmakers say they are not keen on facing off with Israeli explorers before boundaries are set.

“We speak of borders that the other side does not respect,” said Tariq Majzoub, a judge in the Lebanese Shura Council who participated in the workshop on Monday.

Majzoub said participants should not to be deterred by the prospect of ambiguous borders, adding that the current boundary which Israel adheres to in its current drilling project has been arbitrarily drawn up, creeping into waters which he said were visibly Lebanese.

Other participants warned of legal hurdles that would hold back the process, calling for a disentangling of complex bureaucratic and legal procedures in order to attract contractors.

Rayan Hussein Quweilty, an attorney with the Institute for the forum on Arab Law, suggested a series of reforms that the government should undertake, including custom gas tax cuts and a removal of compensation ceilings.

He said a special law must be drafted to resolve disputes specific to the oil sector and that Lebanon needs to breed a new generation of attorneys with a strong command in the highly specialized field of energy law.

He also urged lawmakers to establish a national company for petrol, as well as a national company for gas which would have a productive capacity for excavation, subsequently paving the way for private ventures to enter the field.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2011, on page 4.