Seven to ten years minimum. That is the time frame for Lebanon to potentially benefit from the estimated 1.9 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and oil that lie under the seabed in our territorial waters. Naturally, the government needs to act with greater urgency if it is to set in motion the process for Lebanon to eventually end its reliance on imported energy reserves and inject much-needed funds into the economy.
If and when we get them (we say “if” because there is a chance—albeit slim—that the fields could be too small and too deep, making drilling technically very difficult and too expensive to be worth all the effort) the proceeds would boost our foreign currency reserves and service Lebanon’s huge national debt. They could also be plowed into infrastructure such as roads, utilities, water and electricity, leading to eventual privatization, while any excess can be used to create a sovereign wealth and/or a social welfare fund.
But typically, till now the government has done little to exploit the potential wealth in our waters. The oil and gas law was passed in late 2010, but we are still waiting for the creation of the so-called Petroleum Authority so it can tender licenses for exploration and drilling.
And as usual, the issue has been hijacked for political purposes. In January, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil employed defiant rhetoric in a bid to draw attention away from the delays, declaring that “Lebanon has drawn its [maritime] borders based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea” and warned that “no Lebanese will accept either the renunciation of their energy resources or their maritime rights.”
He was, of course, hinting at the potential of a maritime border dispute with Israel, hoping to strike a jingoistic chord with the Lebanese. But in reality his words were insulting and crass. With the exception of card-carrying party drones, and their numbers are dwindling by the day, most Lebanese gave up listening to their politicians a long time ago. They want to see results.
There can be no more pussy footing and no more procrastination. This government has been a catastrophic failure at every turn, and its inability to move forward on the oil and gas file has once again highlighted its incompetence. Bottom line, the state is out of its depth (no pun intended) when it comes to dealing professionally, efficiently and transparently with complex matters. The public sector is so shot through with incompetence and corruption, and so threadbare in its talent, it is hard to think how this or any other progress will ever evolve.
Last week in this column we castigated the government over its inability to deal with the growing level of petty crime and pointed out that public confidence in the government’s performance was at an all-time low. Now there is further evidence of gross mismanagement, and ironically it comes from a ministry run by Gebran Bassil, one of Michel Aoun’s so-called clean technocrats.
And let us not forget the ever-present shadow of Hezbollah, a party that will waste no time in hijacking anything it can blister onto its cause, no matter what the cost to the country. Ironically, for a party that claims to put Lebanon before all else, Hezbollah has contributed little to the growth of the state over the past decade.
With parliamentary elections set for next year, the opposition March 14 bloc must make this and other pressing economic and social concerns the big-ticket items. As for March 8, we have witnessed its failure in all its shabby mediocrity. The sooner it is consigned to the bone yard of Lebanese politics, the sooner we can get on with the belated task of rebuilding our country.