Executive Insight – Making the most of Lebanon’s resources

Newly discovered Lebanese oil and gas could be wasted

In its drive to become an oil and/or gas producing country, Lebanon currently faces the challenges of establishing and implementing a sound regulatory framework and an effective Petroleum Administration, the sector’s (supposedly) independent regulatory body.

Some of the most crucial aspects of the required system include creating farsighted mechanisms that will first prevent the occurrence of a number of problems that are commonly encountered in hydrocarbon producing provinces, and second, equip the Lebanese government with sufficient powers to address such problems swiftly and efficiently as they arise throughout the development of the upstream oil and/or gas industry in the country.

National vs. IOC interests

Arguably one of the worst oversights that can be committed by the early drafters of oil and gas legislation is the assumption that International Oil Companies (IOCs) would be always seeking to diligently explore their acreages in search of hydrocarbons, and that once they have found oil and/or gas, they would be eager to exploit it effectively and quickly.
Experience around the world shows that not long after licenses are granted or discoveries are made, some areas are often left to lay fallow and national governments discover that they do not have adequate powers to impose work obligations on the IOCs. As a prominent observer of the United Kingdom offshore licensing regime once noted, “the idea that licensees might make significant discoveries but then not develop them does not appear to have occurred to those who first drafted the offshore licensing arrangements in 1964/1965”.

In the UK, for example, rigorous state action was needed to address this problem and the government had to undergo the complexities of enforcing a “voluntary” scheme in order to rectify the situation of fallow areas and discoveries. The result was a shy governmental process that raised some concerns about the legality of such measures.

The efforts undertaken so far by the Lebanese government in drafting the offshore hydrocarbon legal framework suggests that the country is slowly making steady progress in the right direction. It is imperative to continue along this positive trajectory by appointing a Petroleum Administration that can play an effective role in monitoring, at a close distance, the petroleum operations to be undertaken by the IOCs.

Foresight needed

It can be also predicted that, in light of the current position of the Lebanese economy, the mere discovery of commercial oil and/or gas reserves would  understandably be interpreted as a promising sign of future wealth, regardless of the quantities that would actually be produced.

Yet, once the initial joy of the first few barrels fades away, the Lebanese government must be well prepared to monitor the efficiency of its production and to make sure that its licensees are conducting their operations using the best practicable standards and methods to ensure acceptable recovery levels out of each reservoir.

The technical expertise and skills of the licensees (the operators) usually play a crucial role in determining the levels of recovery (i.e. how much oil and/or gas could be practicably produced).

For instance, a 70 percent oil recovery from an oil reservoir is considered to be a high percentage as it is almost impossible to extract entire reserves of any particular reservoir due to the constant reduction of pressure and the interference of other factors, such as oil density and depth of the reservoir, amongst others.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia are constantly aiming to increase their investments in enhanced recovery technologies, as they recognize how vital this is in order to boost recovery rates at their reservoirs from around 50 percent to 70 percent.

Once again, the Lebanese regulator must ensure that the government’s powers under any exploration and production agreement offer useful mechanisms for pushing the licensees towards more efficient recoveries, that is to say better stewardship.

In due course the government must put in place adequate mechanisms whereby field activities would be surveyed (preferably on a yearly basis) to determine the performance of each licensee (operator).

A process to deal with underperforming fields must also be decided. Such a process could, for example, include an initial consultation exercise between the government and the licensee (operator) to study possible ways to enhance stewardship. A set of targets could thereafter be agreed in conjunction with a clear and firm set of sanctions.

Failure to address certain crucial issues in the initial text of petroleum regulations and agreements could have disastrous consequences on the national interest and result in huge resources being lost or at least deferred.

Effective revenue management

In addition to operational efficiency, an important matter that Lebanon must consider is the efficient management of its hydrocarbon revenues. Hydrocarbon resources are known to inject considerable financial revenues into state accounts. These revenues would usually have two main characteristics: one, they are likely to constitute a large percentage of the total yearly revenues of the state; and two, they are temporary.

As a result, several unfavorable consequences could be noticed in the national economy:
(i) Inflation due to the sudden increase in money supply.
(ii) An occurrence of the Dutch Disease, meaning the depreciation of the productive sectors as they becomes less competitive due to the oil-related increases in exchange rates.
(iii) An unstable budget balance due to the volatility of oil prices.
(iv) A decrease in income when the resources of the province begin to decline.
As part of the economic strategies that governments undertake to surmount the above challenges, national oil funds are often created by governments to accumulate and manage part of, or the entirety of, the state’s oil and gas revenues. In total, close to 20 petroleum-producing countries are known to have established national oil funds.

The specific purposes of such funds varies between countries; for instance, Norway’s aim is to use its fund to stabilize of the economy and to secure a steady income for future generations, even after the resources dry-up. Russia, however, does not give priority to saving for future generations and the purpose of its oil fund is, according to Vasily Astrov, an economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies: “reduce the vulnerability of the state budget to the volatility of world oil prices,” and to sterilize “the impact of oil-related foreign exchange inflows on the money supply and inflation.”

To Lebanon’s credit, the Lebanese Offshore Hydrocarbon Resources Law provides a clear provision that state hydrocarbon proceeds shall be injected into a sovereign fund.

The strategy shall be to keep the capital and part of the proceeds in an “investment fund for future generations”, while using the remaining funds to “guarantee the rights of the state and avoid serious, short or long-term negative economic consequences”.

In theory this is an excellent provision, however, the practical benefits thereof shall be largely affected by the seriousness of the special law that needs to be enacted by the Lebanese parliament to define the management structure of the sovereign wealth fund, and its investment principles, not to mention the effective implementation of such law. A close eye should be kept at how the Lebanese authorities will perform in the coming years in this respect.

Worthless oil and gas?

Indeed, some critics may argue that Lebanon’s oil and gas resources would be worthless to the country if they are badly managed and exploited. As the coming decades will show, the true worth of these ‘valuable’ resources will come down to the ability of the Lebanese authorities to manage this industry with high technical capabilities, foresight and transparency.

Malek Takkieddine is a Lebanese lawyer working with international energy companies in the MENA. He lectures on oil and gas law at the Lebanese American University.