Will Offshore Gas Spark New Lebanon-Israel Conflict?

As exploration and exploitation of offshore gas fields in Lebanese waters has yet to get going, concerns have been raised that bordering Israeli fields could serve as a pretext for Israel to steal Lebanese gas.

al-monitor Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil points at a map during a tour of areas believed to have gas reserves, off Lebanon's coast near Beirut, May 30, 2013. Offshore seismic surveys suggest Lebanon has at least 30 trillion cubic feet in just a small fraction of its Mediterranean waters Bassil said. Lebanon has selected 46 international oil companies to bid to explore for gas off its coast, where survey ships have been assessing prospects after discoveries in waters off neighboring Israel and Cyprus. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Azakir.

Topics covered

natural gas exploration, leviathan, lebanon

Jul 10, 2013

On July 5, acting Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil announced that for the first time ever, Israel could, intentionally or as a result of its legitimate gas extraction operations in the Mediterranean Sea, steal Lebanon’s share of this commodity. Three days later, Bassil visited the Lebanese president, the acting prime minister and the speaker of parliament to ask that they quickly hold two extraordinary cabinet and parliament sessions in order to pass the remaining laws needed for Lebanon to begin awarding international companies exploration rights in Lebanon’s economic zone in the Mediterranean. This is the only way for Lebanon to safeguard its offshore resources and prevent them from being appropriated by others.

An official source at the Lebanese Ministry of Energy explained to Al-Monitor that the problem raised by the minister was not an issue of concern until recently because Israel had so far limited its gas exploration and extraction activities to the Leviathan-1, Dalit-1, Tamar and Tanin-1 fields, which all are relatively far from Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The closest among them, Tanin-1, lies tens of kilometers off the Lebanese border and its exploitation has no bearing at all on Lebanon’s zone and its riches. But, in the last few weeks, Israel announced its intention to begin exploiting a new field dubbed Karish-1, which is estimated to be 150 square kilometers (58 square kilometers) in size, with surveys projecting it to hold 1.5 trillion to 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. However, the most worrisome attribute of this field is that it is very close to the border area between the Israeli and Lebanese EEZs. Its farthest point lies 15 to 17 kilometers (9.3 to 10.6 miles) from the Lebanese zone, while its closest point is located only 4 kilometers away (2½  miles).

The same official further elaborated that the new Israeli field was adjacent to two of the three blocks that lie on the border between the Lebanese and Israeli zones in the Mediterranean. It should be noted here that Lebanon’s EEZ stretches over 22,000 square kilometers (8,500 square miles) and is divided into 10 blocks that were demarcated based upon the results of surveys commissioned by the Lebanese Energy Ministry. Three of those blocks, numbers 8, 9 and 10, are located adjacent to the Israeli zone along a west-to-east axis. Our source also confirmed that the Karish-1 field was only 4 kilometers (2½ miles) from Block 8; 6 kilometers from Block 9 and 9 kilometers (5½ miles) from a natural gas reservoir that scans revealed is present within Lebanon’s Block 9.

The Lebanese official continued, saying that the 250 square kilometer (96 square mile) Israeli Tamar field, which is estimated to contain between 8 trillion and 10 trillion square feet of gas, is being exploited by five wells so far. It follows then, that three or four wells will be dug into the Karish-1 field. One or two of those will be located in the northern part of that field and will therefore be at a close enough distance to have an impact on Lebanon’s natural gas reserves.

The source explained that mere vertical drilling in those wells could affect Lebanon’s gas wealth in Block 9, specifically in one of the surveyed sites because the prevailing undersea geology points to gas reservoirs being interconnected in the area. It therefore would be sufficient for one well to be vertically dug in order to have an impact on the adjacent block. But, even worse, according to the Lebanese ministerial source, is that modern well drilling techniques allow for oblique or even horizontal drilling up to a distance of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) or more. As a result, any oblique or horizontal drilling in the Karish-1 field for a distance of 4 to 7 kilometers, is sufficient to penetrate Lebanese Blocks 8 and 9, therefore infringing upon Lebanon’s natural gas wealth in the Mediterranean Sea.

The official went on to give current examples of similar cases, such as Russia drilling obliquely and horizontally for 11.7 kilometers in a field that exploits Sakhalin Island, which allowed it to access a reservoir located 10.88 kilometers away from the surface drill site. Qatar also conducted a similar type of operation in its Shaheen offshore field, where it dug for 12.29 kilometers to reach a pocket located 10.9 kilometers from the surface.

Based on these facts and examples, one could say that Lebanon’s gas reserves in the region are now in peril, which necessitates that measures be taken to hasten the country’s exploitation of its wealth, particularly in light of international failures to regulate the relationship between Lebanon and Israel in this regard, and the continued state of conflict that exists between the two countries.

Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese newspaper, and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station. He also teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon.

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