The Natural Gas Giant To Challenge Israel

When Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin mid-September, most media coverage revolved around political and military issues. Yet the meeting was part of Mr. Hariri’s charm offensive to attract foreign investors to Lebanon’s offshore zone, a long-cherished glimmer of hope for the heavily indebted country that has suffered from chronical political paralysis for some decades already.

After a 29-month deadlock during which Lebanon had no president, the team of Hariri and President Michel Aoun was determined to provide a much-needed boost to end legislative obstructionism and get down to work.

Although Lebanon’s offshore licensing round officially began in 2013, the bids of pre-qualified companies are due by October 12, 2017. But is the four-year wait worth it?

If, 10 years ago, Lebanese officials mooted the possibility of kick-starting gas imports from Syria under a 25-year term agreement (never materialized, as Syria couldn’t even meet its own demand) or joining up to the Arab Gas Pipeline initiative, under which Egyptian gas would be marketed via Lebanon, the last five years have seen a significant change in attitudes and expectations.

Ever since Israel discovered the 20 TCf Leviathan gas field just a few kilometers off Lebanon’s maritime zone, Lebanese officials have taken kindling hydrocarbon dreams to a new level. 

In 2013, government officials stated that within four years Lebanon will be a gas-producing state—yet as of today, Lebanon produces no gas whatsoever and has no hydrocarbon reserves.

Discovering gas in the Lebanese offshore zone would not only boost Beirut’s profile, it would also bode perfectly with the government’s plans to wind down fuel oil usage in its power generation. In view of Lebanon’s emission-reducing commitments the government singled out natural gas, slated to cover two-thirds of its fuel mix by 2020.

It took Lebanese legislators to adopt the legal groundwork that would stipulate E&P activity in the Lebanese offshore area. The E&P model agreement, the block delineation decree and the petroleum income tax law were all introduced and enacted this year. 

Despite the Lebanese Petroleum Administration’s efforts, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

An unsettled maritime boundary dispute with Israel complicates the Lebanese task further. Israel is the only Levant basin country that made significant strides in tapping its offshore reserves (the Tamar field has produced since 2013; Leviathan will be brought onstream in 2019), and as such can counteract Lebanon’s offshore goals.

Within the frames of the First Offshore Licensing Block, Lebanon will offer five offshore blocks, two of which might stir quite an international quarrel, as blocks 8 and 9 transgress into territories that Israel considers its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Lebanese-Israeli boundary reflects the 1949 armistice line. As a consequence, no agreement has formalized the maritime boundary. Israel’s claim bends much further than the assumed right angle one would expect, however, since Israel did not sign the UN Convention on the Law of Sea, Lebanon cannot resolve the issue by means of an international arbitration and has to rely on a bilateral agreement. This difference in the interpretation of relative points creates a legal grey zone of 860 km2, which might very well turn out to be the most gas-prolific area.

By including the disputed territories in its licensing round, Lebanon offset a boisterous reaction in Israel, which would have led to the unilateral annexation were it not for the international community’s pressure to resolve the issue via negotiations.

Interestingly enough, polls conducted by Lebanese researchers demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s populace reckons Israel will try to siphon off Lebanese offshore gas one way or another. Such an all-pervasive suspiciousness and complete lack of trust don’t bode well with the anticipated rise of the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet still, territorial disputes with Israel notwithstanding, there’s no reason why the non-disputed Lebanese offshore territory shouldn’t be developed.

All in all, Lebanon’s offshore zone is divided into 10 blocks that fully cover its alleged EEZ—only three overlap with the contested territories. Blocks 5 and 6 are located just above it and lie at similar depths of 1.6-2 km, so why not drill there first, until all contentions are settled?

The 2013 licensing round witnessed genuine international interest in Lebanese offshore, yet bear in mind that the annual Brent of that year stood at $108/bbl. With a 2017 average of $52/bbl so far, will all the 54 qualified companies as interested as they were in a high-price environment? Moreover, as the example of Cyprus’ Aphrodite field has demonstrated, discovering gas is sometimes not enough, one has to find market outlets for it that are big enough to justify the field’s development.

Lebanon’s gas transformation might be a worthy cause; however, then the nation’s export expansion plans would be largely limited to exporting small volumes to Jordan or Syria. A 2012 3D seismic survey has estimated Lebanon’s total recoverable gas reserves at 25 TCf (0.7 TCm). Lebanon’s offshore area is estimated to contain 660 million barrels of oil; however, all adjacent nations focus strictly on gas extraction, so Lebanon will most likely go down the same path.

Against such a background, now that Syria’s war-ravaged oil and gas sector is destined to witness an increase in Russian participation (a trend that will be massively buttressed politically by the Syrian government), Lebanon might also fall into the Russian sphere of oil and gas influence.

Largely due to its military operation in Syria, Russia has a constructive relationship with both Israel and Lebanon (the reason why Iranian involvement is inconceivable) and bringing it in would even go down well with Lebanese hardliners—and its why American companies will have a hard time.

European companies, especially majors like Total and ENI, are most likely to join in, especially considering that the blocks will be distributed to consortiums.

Despite all the challenges, Lebanon remains an alluring asset. With no national oil and gas company around and a relatively liberal taxation regime, it might grow into Israel’s energy peer.