Environmental impact of developing Lebanon's oil sector

Article Summary
During a closed-door meeting at the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, concerned parties discussed the environmental impact of developing the oil and gas sector and focused on nine points of particular concern.

For the first time in Lebanon, after creating a legal framework for exploration of oil and gas, the environmental impact of this process is being discussed openly with multiple involved parties in the Ministry of Environment. The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and the governing body of the Lebanese petroleum sector, in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, held a closed roundtable session at the ministry at the end of last year to exchange experiences and views on the environmental challenges resulting from the potential discovery of oil and gas in Lebanon.

While the organizers of this session preferred to stay out of the media, we do not believe this is fair, given that the media landscape has been occupied by voices supporting and promoting the option to drill for oil in the recent period, without studying the environmental and economic impact of this process. Here's the bottom line: What is meant by "environmental impact study" for the option of drilling and extracting oil and gas?

The main parties involved in the meeting had different views. Those involved included the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Sami Atallah; environmental expert Ricardo Khoury; members of the governing body of the petroleum sector; Rola el-Sheikh from the Ministry of Environment; representatives of the government; experts and activists from civil society groups and the private sector; and representatives of international organizations. The author of this article has identified nine points that he considers general criteria for a study and evaluation of the environmental impact of this option. 

Measuring the environmental impact should not be limited to the places where the exploration, extraction, refining or transportation will take place. And it is not only related to the issue of potential oil pollution in the land, sea and air, but we must also consider the impact this sector will have on other sectors. 

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Perhaps the first thing we can say about this option to drill for oil is that it did not come from within a national strategy for sustainable development that includes sub-strategies for energy, water and other sectors. If we consider sustainability as a strategic criterion in choosing sources and kinds of energy in Lebanon, oil would be at the bottom of the ladder of potential sources. This is because it is a non-renewable resource, relative to sun, air and water power. 

Furthermore, this option does not take into account international experience in this field — both in developed and developing countries — in terms of legislation, risks and how to avoid or manage these risks. The largest countries in the world, such as the United States, reassessed their legislation relating to oil and gas exploration following the disaster that occurred in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico with major British companies (including British Petroleum). It took BP a long time to end the crisis, despite possessing the greatest capabilities in the world. News reports still come out every year about the effects of this disaster, emphasizing the gravity of its effect, which it seems has yet to disappear. 

This occurred in a major country with well-known international companies. Thus, how would things be in a developing country like ours, which has no expertise in the legislation and administration of oil, or in intervention and treatment in the event of problems or disasters. Our weakness was apparent after the July 2006 war, when fuel tanks at the Jiye Station spilled into the sea. We were very late to respond, and some of the effects of this disaster are still stored in containers and we do not know how to deal with them. 

Moreover, this option does not come after studying all of Lebanon's natural capabilities, with a strategy based on limiting energy consumption, guiding energy use in all the sectors and monitoring the global trends and international agreements on climate change. Such a strategy should support renewable resources and consider the possibility that the price of renewable resources will decrease, given the great potential that new technology will be available that offers a cheaper and more sustainable alternative. 

We also have not sufficiently studied the effects of this option on the economy in general, and on the many sectors that will be negatively affected from the extraction of oil and gas. Furthermore, there is the possibility that companies will benefit at the expense of the state, and thus this "blessing" would be transformed into a curse and a new source of dispute between parties, something we don't need. (Precursors of this appeared recently in the dispute over control of the Energy Ministry.)

The role of the Ministry of Environment

Rola el-Sheikh, from the Ministry of Environment, opened the discussion by noting the general role of the ministry, within the scope of its work and different interests. She discussed how the ministry would oversee the oil and gas sector and ensure general compliance with environmental standards, particularly in terms of air pollution and the waste generated by this new sector. The discussion also addressed the oil sector's impact on ecosystems and how to deal with the chemicals it would produce, etc. She then presented the existing local and international environmental legislation. This includes the Environmental Protection Law, statutes related to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). She concluded the discussion by specifying the most important environment challenges to this sector that should be overcome with local partners, in particular the governing body of the petroleum sector.

In this regard, it was pointed out that there are no oil or oil pollution experts in the Ministry of Environment, and the environmental standards issued via ministerial decisions do not consider some of the requirements of this sector. In addition, Sheikh mentioned the importance of a study on how to reconcile this option and the laws related to it with what is required by relevant international conventions such as the Basel Convention, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Ramsar Convention. Lebanon is required to abide by these conventions to get aid for nature reserves such as the beaches of Tyre and the Palm Islands.

The discussion also touched on the supervisory role of the Ministry of Environment, the requisite specialized human and material resource and the establishment of a specialized department in the ministry, etc. 

The governing body of the management of the sector

The Ministry of Environment's presentation was followed by a presentation by Assam Abu Ibrahim, the chairman of the governing body of the petroleum sector and the head of the QHSE Department. The presentation focused on seismic studies from 1990, up to the 2012 degree to establish the governing body of the sector, in addition to other decrees that have yet to be completed. He also spoke about the potential environmental impacts associated with oil exploration and production activities in Lebanese waters, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the Ministry of Environment, the governing body of the petroleum sector and international companies in the management of environmental impacts related to the oil and gas sector. Abu Ibrahim also presented key findings and recommendations of the Strategic Environmental Assessment study conducted in 2012. He concluded his speech with an outline of future activities that will be carried out by the QHSE Department in the governing body of the petroleum sector to promote environmental management of the oil and gas sector.

A number of key issues and proposed recommendations were also put forward that should be taken into account in the context of planning and working to develop this sector from an environmental perspective.

Recommendations and discussions

The main discussions and recommendations have focused on nine points, namely:

1. There are conflicting positions on whether or not to extract oil, and on the Lebanese government's decision to develop the oil and gas sector. A prominent opinion was that the Lebanese government should have evaluated alternative sources of energy production before taking the decision to explore the oil and gas sector. Lebanon has reserves of natural resources, and therefore it could have been useful to develop these resources and take advantage of the energy sector to invest in these resources that are environmentally friendly, in addition to developing other sectors of the economy. Thus, the government should take advantage of changing global opinions on the oil and gas sector in confronting climate change, and develop a comprehensive environmental strategy to achieve sustainable development.

2. The existing gaps between legislation and law enforcement constitute a significant threat to this sector. Legislation is not always implemented in Lebanon, yet there are high risks associated with the improper management of the oil and gas sector. It is important that the government develops and updates existing environmental legislation related to the activities of the oil and gas sector, and also put in place a mechanism for monitoring and enforcement. For example, the government must update its decision on environmental standards and reconsider the Environmental Impact Assessment, with the help of experts. Likewise, they must put in place a comprehensive legislative framework for health, safety and the environment. It is also important to develop a mechanism for monitoring and enforcement that takes into account Lebanon's unique context and the ability to manage the environmental requirements in this sector. The government should also develop mechanisms, such as third-party control, self-reporting and enabling lobby groups access to information and monitoring. 

Emergency authority

3. The discussion also highlighted oil spills, given that they are one of the biggest environmental risks. Oil spills could have effects that cannot be erased on Lebanon and many countries of the region, especially in the absence of competent local authorities to deal with such disasters and environmental strategies for cross-border cooperation. Consequently, there is an urgent need to prepare all the relevant authorities for the potential future environmental accidents or emergency situations, to strengthen cross-border cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean. To this end, it is advisable to revive the Committee to Respond to Emergencies, which was founded in 1999 and came back and took action in the wake of the Jiye oil spill in July 2006. It is also advisable to promote the exchange of knowledge and cooperation with the international community in the field of emergence preparedness and response (for the Ministry of Environment to take advantage of international relations), and to put the final touches on an emergency response plan for oil spills based on the findings of the SEA. It is also necessary to build national competencies in the field of preparedness and emergency response, including purchasing necessary equipment and providing training for staff.

The weakness of the state and corporate power

4. There are concerns about the ability of the Ministry of Environment to manage the environmental risks related to the development of the oil and gas sector. Although the ministry is doing its best today to prepare for monitoring the sector, it still suffers from a small budget, in addition to weak abilities when it comes to monitoring and enforcement. Thus, there is a need to build the Ministry of Environment's capacities for monitoring and enforcement. It is important to assess the needs and capacities of the Ministry of Environment to monitor and enforce environmental standards in the oil and gas sector, including the number of staff and their skills, as well as budget and equipment requirements. In the end, a department of oil and gas could be formed within the Ministry of Environment.

5. In addition to the weakness of "governance" and environmental management, there are conflicting positions when it comes to the role of oil companies. Are they a threat or a benefit? During the meeting, various concerns were raised that these companies could dominate the public sector in the control of oil extraction, given their expertise and vast resources. On the other hand, others suggested the possibility that Lebanon could benefit from these companies and their policies in the field of corporate social responsibility for investment in environmental initiatives. Thus, to avoid the risk of green washing, it is important to establish clear procedures relating to corporate social responsibility and partnership initiatives between the public and private sectors. This idea was met with many reservations from environmentalists, given that the term "cooperate responsibility" cannot be compared to the results of disasters, if they occur, in addition to the ongoing weakness of the state. 

6. Despite the presence of active civil society groups in Lebanon, it is not yet known how they will deal with this emerging issue. These groups lack experience and expertise in this field, and are faced with a weak government that is intent on investing at any cost. We do not known how a dialogue will be opened between civil society and other parties concerned with the oil and gas sector. Some have suggested that civil society play a monitoring role in the oil and gas sector, and called for the development of an effective mechanism to engage and empower civil society to act as effective lobby groups. 

Where does the environmental data come from?

7. Furthermore, there are significant gaps in basic environmental data, which must be filled to support the monitoring of the future environmental impacts of developing the oil and gas sector. Thus, some have noted the need to encourage initiatives to fill these gaps before oil companies obtain licenses, and to strengthen the capacity of national institutions — such as the National Center for Marine Science — in the field of monitoring the biodiversity in the deep sea. And here a big problem arises: The Center for Marine Science has yet to study the deep areas, especially in those areas where exploration and drilling will take place. The marine biodiversity studies available so far are in areas where depths do not exceed 100 meters (328 feet), and even these do not cover all areas of this depth range. It is worth noting that studying deep areas of the sea requires capabilities that are much larger than those currently available. Thus, if spills or pollution occur, how can companies be prosecuted? There must be data and information on the state of the area before the incident, to evaluate damage and determine the compensation. 

Economic fears

8. It is important to promote the transfer of knowledge and ongoing expertise from international experiences and lessons learned to the concerned Lebanese parties. Thus, it has been proposed to implement permanent sessions to provide information on the latest environmentally friendly technologies to improve oil and gas exploration, and activities for development, reducing risks and maintaining environmental safety. For example, the government could organize a panel discussion regarding the lessons learned from the latest environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

9. The concerns raised in the closed-door meeting went beyond the effects on the oil and gas sector to include concerns for the economy as a whole. In addition to the environmental consequences, developing the oil and gas sector could have a negative impact on the industrial, agricultural and tourism sectors specifically as well as on the economy as a whole, through the phenomenon of the "Dutch disease." This refers to an increase in unemployment and poverty and a decline in many sectors after the discovery of oil and gas. Thus, the government should undertake a systematic assessment of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the development of the oil and gas sector and put in place mitigation strategies to reduce the potential risks.

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Found in: state institutions, politics, oil exploration, oil & gas, lebanon, infrastructure, environment
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