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Lebanon’s gas rights defended in Switzerland



Energy drilling platforms have become a common sight in the region

Energy drilling platforms have become a common sight in the region

(Keystone)

With sizeable oil and gas reserves coming to light in the Eastern Mediterranean, a Swiss association is working to help Lebanon assert its exploitation rights.

Earlier this week representatives from across the Lebanese political spectrum came together at a meeting in Geneva organised by the Swiss Association for Euro-Arab-Muslim Dialogue (ASDEAM).

Considering the level of tension in the region  – Israel is still technically at war with Lebanon – and the ultimate prize of self-sufficiency in energy provision, the battle over these resources promises to be tough. Disputed maritime borders and sea rights will also muddy the waters. 

The region has recently seen some of the largest natural gas discoveries of the past decade, Paris-based oil and gas expert Nicolas Sarkis explains.

“These finds are situated in a zone which is called the Syrian arc, which goes from Egypt, across the Sinai to Syria passing by Israel, Gaza and Lebanon. There are also significant indications of gas from the north of Syria as far as Turkey,”

Sarkis adds: “The reserves around Haifa [northern Israel] appear to be relatively large [238 billion cubic metres] according to initial findings on the Israeli side. 

“But these fields quite likely spread into Lebanon’s sovereign territory. However Israel is the country the most advanced on the legal side and in the preparation to exploit this gas. Lebanon is playing catch-up.”

Which is why ASDEAM has offered its services to Lebanon to help brush up its legal dossier.

Considering the level of tension in the region  – Israel is still technically at war with Lebanon – and the ultimate prize of self-sufficiency in energy provision, the battle over these resources promises to be tough. Disputed maritime borders and sea rights will also muddy the waters. 

The region has recently seen some of the largest natural gas discoveries of the past decade, Paris-based oil and gas expert Nicolas Sarkis explains.

“These finds are situated in a zone which is called the Syrian arc, which goes from Egypt, across the Sinai to Syria passing by Israel, Gaza and Lebanon. There are also significant indications of gas from the north of Syria as far as Turkey,”

Sarkis adds: “The reserves around Haifa [northern Israel] appear to be relatively large [238 billion cubic metres] according to initial findings on the Israeli side. 

“But these fields quite likely spread into Lebanon’s sovereign territory. However Israel is the country the most advanced on the legal side and in the preparation to exploit this gas. Lebanon is playing catch-up.”

Which is why ASDEAM has offered its services to Lebanon to help brush up its legal dossier.

Lebanese unity

This is not the first time ASDEAM has worked towards Lebanese unity and cooperation. In 2007 it organised a series of meetings with the support of the Swiss foreign ministry, which concluded with a common declaration opening the way for the appointment of a Lebanese president.

Based on these existing contacts, the Geneva-based association once again brought together representatives from across the Lebanese religious and political spectrum, along with legal experts on May 2 and 3 in a Geneva hotel.

“Lebanon needs to put together a dossier and a legal team capable of defending the interests of the country in a difficult regional context,” Yves Besson, vice president of ASDEAM, told swissinfo.ch.

“It seemed worthwhile for us to bring together Lebanese representatives and international experts on maritime law. And to define a plan which will again allow the Lebanese government – when it is formed – to assert its rights to these gas reserves, whether it is with Israel, Syria or Cyprus,” he said.

Besson gave some details of the Lebanese party, which included those close to leading politicians.

“Around the table we had representatives of the Lebanese ministers concerned, technicians and lawyers, representatives of the government which is expediting matters, someone close to the Lebanese presidency and an adviser to the prime minister designate. In other words, all the parties in the Lebanese political arena were represented.”

“What was great was that all the Lebanese present seemed to be determined to defend the interests of Lebanon. And the calibre of the people present was sufficiently high to give weight to that determination,” Besson added.

Swiss interest

According to the former diplomat, the Swiss foreign ministry is not directly involved. “But it is informed and has shown its interest by paying a visit in the course of this meeting.”

The Swiss commitment was confirmed by a source close to the matter who added that Switzerland is politically supporting the process.

Lebanon’s chances of success are severely hampered by political division. “Between the different Lebanese parties, relations remain very tense. Even at governmental level, it has been months since Lebanon has been able to form a government. It is not going to be easy to defend a common position on such a complex dossier,” Sarkis observed.

The oil expert also pointed to the wider regional obstacles: “Lebanon and Israel are technically at war. On top of that, if it is confirmed that the Israeli gas reserves are very large that would not suit the interests of certain countries like Iran, which has significant gas reserves.”

Besson knows the context well. “Neighbouring countries were not mentioned at all at our meeting. And the Lebanese spoke with one voice,” he said.

“Our goal was to define a zone of interest on which the Lebanese could reach agreement. We emphasised that despite the absence of government they should defend the interests of the country without delay. From this point of view our meeting was a success.”

But time is of the essence. As soon as a reserve begins to be exploited – Israel is talking about 2013 – the issue will rise to the surface, involving the entire international community.

Oil and natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean

A report released in March 2010 by the United States Geological Survey estimated a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet (3.45 trillion cubic metres) of recoverable gas in the Levant Basin Province (along the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli coastline) using a geology-based assessment methodology.

Two new off-shore gas fields, Tamar and Leviathan,  have been discovered off the Israeli coast by the US oil giant Noble Energy. The Leviathan field  was the largest natural gas find in a decade. 

The Tamar site is set to come online in 2013, and the larger Leviathan prospect is expected to be ready around 2017.

Lebanon has previously claimed that the giant Leviathan and Tamar fields are in Lebanese waters, and Israel responded by saying that it would use force to protect its assets.

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(Translated from French by Clare O'Dea), swissinfo.ch


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