Lebanon urges French energy firm to ‘immediately’ launch gas search

Lebanese caretaker PM Mikati meets delegation from TotalEnergies, hopes ‘conclusion would be reached soon’ on US-brokered maritime border with Israel announced Tuesday

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrives at a cabinet meeting in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrives at a cabinet meeting in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT — Lebanon on Tuesday asked French energy giant TotalEnergies to kick-start gas exploration off its shores after Israel said the two countries have reached a US-mediated deal to settle their maritime border.

Lebanon’s search for gas riches in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern Mediterranean had stalled since 2020 over competing claims with Israel over offshore gas fields.

Following Israel’s announcement on Tuesday, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, met a visiting delegation from TotalEnergies — which was awarded an exploration license in 2018.

“During the meeting, Mikati called on representatives of TotalEnergies to immediately begin taking operational steps to drill in Lebanese waters,” his office said in a statement.

Lebanon has yet to officially agree to the deal, but Mikati said he hoped a “conclusion would be reached soon” that could pave the way for “gas exploration in Lebanese waters.”

Lebanon’s energy minister, Walid Fayad, who also attended the meeting, said that “logistical matters take time, but work will start immediately.”

Map showing Israel-Lebanon maritime border claims. (AFP)

TotalEnergies is part of a consortium of energy giants awarded a license to explore gas in two of Lebanon’s 10 blocks, numbers 4 and 9.

One well drilled in Block 4 in 2020 by TotalEnergies, Eni and Novatek showed only traces but no commercially viable gas deposits.

Block 9, near the border with Israel, contains the so-called Qana field or Sidon reservoir and will be a major zone for offshore exploration after a deal is finalized, according to Lebanese officials.

A deal would put to bed a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

While details of the agreement have not been formally publicized, officials said that last week’s proposal granted Jerusalem international recognition of its buoy-marked boundary five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra, which Israel established in 2000 after withdrawing from southern Lebanon. After that, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

Lebanon will “get its full rights from the Qana field,” and Israel could receive compensation through Total, said Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s lead negotiator in the maritime border talks.

While Jerusalem indicated openness to last week’s proposal, it was swiftly rejected by Lebanon, which reportedly has reservations over officially recognizing the buoy-marked boundary established by Israel. Lapid’s office subsequently made clear that it would not back off from this demand.

Lebanon also is said to have opposed the previous draft’s requirement for Israel to receive a share of the revenues from potential gas produced at Qana.

Energean’s floating production system (FPSO) at the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. (Energean)

Saab did not reveal the details of Hochstein’s latest amendments to the proposed maritime border, but it is believed to be related to both the buoy-boundary and the Qana gas field.

Last Thursday, Hebrew media reported that the director of the Israel Energy Ministry told ministers at a cabinet meeting that estimates on how much natural gas could be extracted from Qana — the reservoir at the center of a maritime dispute — were far less than initially thought.

The revelation appeared to be an attempt by the ministry director to convince wary ministers to get on board with the US-brokered maritime agreement by emphasizing that Israel will only be compromising on a reservoir that may offer a very limited profit while receiving international recognition control over other reservoirs in the Mediterranean that are far more profitable.

After a phone call with US mediator Amos Hochstein on Sunday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun expressed optimism on Monday about finalizing a deal “within days,” adding that negotiations had significantly advanced and that “gaps were closed over the last week.”

On Saturday, Israel’s security establishment gave Energean a green light to start testing the Karish pipeline, with full operations slated to begin within weeks. Israel has insisted it will not wait for a deal but has only allowed Energean to take preliminary steps thus far.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened that his group will strike Israel if it begins gas exploration at Karish before a maritime agreement is reached. In more recent rounds of talks, Lebanon began claiming ownership of Karish in addition to Qana. The demand has been largely dismissed, with Israel insisting that its control over Karish is non-negotiable.

Israel and Lebanon never agreed to demarcate their border on land either, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed.

The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.

Successive US administrations have sought to broker a maritime agreement, with Hochstein leading the talks during the Obama administration as well. The effort was picked up several years later when Donald Trump was president, but made little progress.

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