Gebran Bassil became Lebanon’s minister of energy and water in 2011. Since then, the country has made huge strides toward extracting its offshore oil and gas, but last month those bids suffered their first delays since international oil companies became involved. Executive sat down with him to discuss how he plans to get the bids moving again.
With regard to the delay in the oil and gas bids, are you seeing politicians wanting it to happen?
Some people want it to happen, others are simply apathetic. Some others are not helping, others are obstructing.
We need to have a council of ministers, which is the responsibility of the president and of the prime minister. It can happen in two minutes by convening the council of ministers — the decrees are there, they have been ready for a few months, we have the approval of the Shura [Council]. It is a two-minute meeting, we say ‘ok’ and we move on.
How big is the risk of oil companies losing interest?
To be frank we have lost so many years, it is not a matter of a week or a month, two weeks or two months. What matters to us is our credibility, that we are always meeting our schedule — showing that we are serious, professional, transparent. The good opinion that we have from abroad is something we should preserve.
But for example on July 1, these companies had prepared their top seismic experts…
They will not lose interest. Some circumstances will appear where one company or another could have other interests, other investments, other obligations — this can happen. Or maybe there will come a time when other companies may have more interest in Lebanon. [But] what will matter at the end of the day to these companies is if the resource exists — and it exists. And secondly, how appealing it is to them, the conditions, the cost and the facility to export, to use. I believe that Lebanon is in a position where we will always attract international companies. I am not afraid about this.
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Are you concerned that any delays in Lebanon are undermining its regional competiveness?
If [the delay] is long enough, yes. If, let’s say, we stay for a few more years doing nothing, [then] yes. This is the aim of Israel: to delay us. So the big question for our politicians is: Do they want to help Israel by giving Israel more time? But even with the [recent memorandum of understanding between Cyprus, Greece and Israel] we are in a better position.
We are in a geopolitical position that is much better than Israel and we have reasons to believe our resources will be more attractive. You can tell this from the companies that participated in Israel and the companies that participated in Lebanon. Why in Israel did they only have Noble Energy? Where are the big companies that we were able to attract?
Could a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Cyprus owned by the Cypriots be used by both Israel and Lebanon?
No, because Israel is part of it. We don’t need that LNG plant, I am telling you we can afford a better investment plan for the companies where we don’t need it [the plant].
So what is your preferred option for exporting gas?
We are already connected to the regional pipelines. We will have other connections. No matter what Israel and Greece and Cyprus do, we will be in a better position. [Assuming] we progress, of course.
Have negotiations with the Cypriots over an LNG plant stalled or ceased?
We have the problem [with Cyprus] of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is a priority to be solved. And under it we have to negotiate and we have already started to exchange drafts about unitization and partnership regarding any extraction of oil resources. That could go on but the priority is for the EEZ.
Are negotiations over the EEZ [dispute with Israel] ongoing?
Are you hopeful of a breakthrough?
More or less. We are not in the same position [as a year ago] where we were asked [by the United States and Israel] to let go of a few square kilometers of our EEZ. We are in a position where the Americans and the United Nations and the Cypriots have a better understanding of our demands, which are rightful, and of our perspective that [the dispute] is not only about a line but what lies beneath the line i.e. the resources.
You are hinting that they are getting closer to accepting the Lebanese line?
They are closer to dealing with a comprehensive solution and they are already dealing with it. But regardless of what happens on this front it will not stop our operations nor our process for exploration.
You recently said Israel could steal Lebanese gas using horizontal drilling. Can you give us a figure for the gas you estimate could be stolen? Are we talking about 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent?
It is not important what is the percentage. Even if it is 0.001 percent, it is our right. We will not allow Israel to touch it…with Israel it is a matter of principle not quantity.
There are currently negotiations over the signing of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Are you in favor of it?
What are the potential problems stopping the signing of the EITI?
I am not aware of any problems. Any global initiative which abides by UN regulations and laws and gives us the good image that we deserve regarding what we are doing in this sector, we can be part of.
You have previously promised to make oil contracts public. Do you stand by that guarantee?
Of course they are public. We will be completely transparent.Until now everything we’ve done has been published and then when we open the tenders; this will be public.
But, for example, the Strategic Environmental Assessment was meant to be published on the first of May and has still not been made public?
I am not aware of this, and I don’t want to suppose of every study we are making it [public]. I am not at all aware that we were supposed to publish on a certain date.
It was a promise made by the Petroleum Administration…
No, no, no. I am not aware of it at all. Nothing that should have been published was not published. There is no reason, we don’t have anything that is negative in any sense — whether environmental, economical, technical — not at all.
You would be in favor of publishing it?
You are asking me something that [I am not aware of]. I know that we did it ahead of time and it was positive when we finished it. It was a long time ago.
With regard to the more than $33 million raised from the sales of the seismic surveys so far, there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether it is under the control of the Petroleum Administration, the Ministry of Energy or the Ministry of Finance. Can you give me an understanding of where that money has gone so far?
You know this is very small compared to what we will be gaining, so I don’t know why you are…there is no ambiguity at all. This money is put in an account on which everybody agreed, and the minister of finance has approved. Without their approval we could not have opened an account.
My understanding is that the Petroleum Administration thought the money would be available for them to spend on staff?
I don’t know where you are getting this from. You are asking questions I am not really aware of, details that are not really important.