The Oil and the Glory

Lebanese Parliament to Israel: Not so fast on that gas

Remember the natural gas dispute between Israel and Lebanon? Back in June, Israel announced its second large offshore natural gas find in 18 months, to which Lebanon immediately responded with a stern warning not to develop any gas in Lebanese waters. Then Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau escalated the tension further by threatening force against ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Remember the natural gas dispute between Israel and Lebanon? Back in June, Israel announced its second large offshore natural gas find in 18 months, to which Lebanon immediately responded with a stern warning not to develop any gas in Lebanese waters. Then Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau escalated the tension further by threatening force against Lebanon to protect the fields. Now Beirut is raising the stakes again by moving forward with plans to authorize exploration of natural gas fields within its maritime boundaries, boundaries which happen — would you expect any less in the Middle East? — to be disputed.

Israel’s movement to develop the huge Tamar and Leviathan gas fields — which could hold as much as 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — has spurred Lebanon’s parliament to move forward on a law enabling offshore exploration, which it passed today. It is part of long-delayed oil legislation that has been debated for over a decade, but went nowhere due to Lebanon’s notoriously fractious politics, government instability, and myriad external distractions. But the gas discovery has galvanized Hezbollah and its allies in the parliament’s opposition, including the Amal Party, who pushed the government to pass the laws necessary to prevent Israel from “stealing” Lebanese resources.

The gas fields lie in the waters off Israel’s northwest coast, but because the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is ill-defined, portions of the Tamar and Leviathan field could extend into Lebanese waters. Amal Party member Ali Hamdan told Bloomberg yesterday that Beirut intends to draw up a proper sea boundary between the two countries and will present it to the U.N. Security Council. But Israel is almost certain to oppose the Lebanese boundary definition; in June, the head of petroleum exploration at Israel’s National Infrastructures Ministry told Haaretz that the Lebanese resource claims were “nonsense.”

For now, any dispute between the two countries is confined to media sound bites and parliament chambers. But if exploration and development does get underway, it’s not hard to imagine things going badly if the countries’ tenuous ceasefire — following the 2006 hostilities between them – were to fall apart. Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, pointed out to Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press that offshore rigs and other natural gas infrastructure would be attractive targets for Hezbollah or the IDF. Any infrastructural attack would pose not only political or economic risks to both sides, but also potentially severe environmental costs.  

Both countries could benefit greatly from gas revenues. The offshore fields would satisfy Israeli gas demands for 35 years — welcome news for a country where resource security has been a persistent concern for decades — and with enough left over to turn Israel into a gas exporter. Lebanon could use the funds from any oil and gas found in its waters to pay off its crippling national debt, which currently stands at $52 billion, or 147 percent of GDP. But if a major dispute is in the works here, gas may be the last thing needed to maintain the current fragile stability.

Remember the natural gas dispute between Israel and Lebanon? Back in June, Israel announced its second large offshore natural gas find in 18 months, to which Lebanon immediately responded with a stern warning not to develop any gas in Lebanese waters. Then Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau escalated the tension further by threatening force against Lebanon to protect the fields. Now Beirut is raising the stakes again by moving forward with plans to authorize exploration of natural gas fields within its maritime boundaries, boundaries which happen — would you expect any less in the Middle East? — to be disputed.

Israel’s movement to develop the huge Tamar and Leviathan gas fields — which could hold as much as 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — has spurred Lebanon’s parliament to move forward on a law enabling offshore exploration, which it passed today. It is part of long-delayed oil legislation that has been debated for over a decade, but went nowhere due to Lebanon’s notoriously fractious politics, government instability, and myriad external distractions. But the gas discovery has galvanized Hezbollah and its allies in the parliament’s opposition, including the Amal Party, who pushed the government to pass the laws necessary to prevent Israel from “stealing” Lebanese resources.

The gas fields lie in the waters off Israel’s northwest coast, but because the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is ill-defined, portions of the Tamar and Leviathan field could extend into Lebanese waters. Amal Party member Ali Hamdan told Bloomberg yesterday that Beirut intends to draw up a proper sea boundary between the two countries and will present it to the U.N. Security Council. But Israel is almost certain to oppose the Lebanese boundary definition; in June, the head of petroleum exploration at Israel’s National Infrastructures Ministry told Haaretz that the Lebanese resource claims were “nonsense.”

For now, any dispute between the two countries is confined to media sound bites and parliament chambers. But if exploration and development does get underway, it’s not hard to imagine things going badly if the countries’ tenuous ceasefire — following the 2006 hostilities between them – were to fall apart. Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, pointed out to Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press that offshore rigs and other natural gas infrastructure would be attractive targets for Hezbollah or the IDF. Any infrastructural attack would pose not only political or economic risks to both sides, but also potentially severe environmental costs.  

Both countries could benefit greatly from gas revenues. The offshore fields would satisfy Israeli gas demands for 35 years — welcome news for a country where resource security has been a persistent concern for decades — and with enough left over to turn Israel into a gas exporter. Lebanon could use the funds from any oil and gas found in its waters to pay off its crippling national debt, which currently stands at $52 billion, or 147 percent of GDP. But if a major dispute is in the works here, gas may be the last thing needed to maintain the current fragile stability.

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