All at sea

Environmental assessment warns of potential risks of oil and gas extraction

by Matt Nash

This article is part of Executive’s special report on the oil and gas sector. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up October’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.


Protecting the world’s waters from pollution associated with offshore oil and gas exploration and production is not a global priority. While then-Russian President Dimitri Medvedev in 2010 suggested before a G20 meeting that world leaders hammer out an international “convention or several agreements” aimed at setting global environmental standards for offshore drilling, four years later only the G20 Global Marine Environment Protection Initiative website exists. A 2014 study by the Paris based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations found that national laws regarding environmental protection in offshore drilling vary, and regional agreements covering various bodies of water exist but a global framework does not. For the Mediterranean region, an additional protocol to the 1976 Barcelona Convention for Protection against Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea specifically related to protecting the sea from oil and gas activities went into force in 2011, but Lebanon is not a signatory. Despite that, Lebanon commissioned a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) for offshore oil and gas activities that same year.

The authors of Lebanon’s SEA — British consultancy RPS Energy — note in the document that a broad SEA is only the beginning of proper environmental management for a new offshore oil and gas industry. The SEA says that under European law, companies are required on a project-by-project basis to conduct more detailed environmental and social impact assessments, a practice it encourages Lebanon to adopt. Both Lebanon’s Petroleum Activities Regulations and the 2010 Offshore Petroleum Resources Law call for the companies drilling in Lebanon’s waters to conduct such assessments.

Project-by-project assessments will be helpful in Lebanon — if properly conducted — to both create a baseline environmental picture and help monitor the situation to ensure that environmental damage done by any oil or gas activities in the future is kept to a minimum. The SEA notes that, currently, Lebanon lacks sufficient data to have a full sense of what the baseline picture is today. Olof Linden, a professor of marine environment management with the World Maritime University in Sweden, tells Executive that monitoring and evaluation of the project specific assessments will be important going forward. “Traditionally,” he says of environmental assessments in offshore projects, “it’s a mixed experience. In many [countries], they are just a paper product, something that exists as a condition in a contract, something that the client can tick off as has been done. ‘Ok, here’s the document, let’s move on.’”

Pipe dreams

One prospective project the SEA was particularly harsh on is a planned onshore natural gas pipeline connecting Tripoli to Tyre. The project has been talked about for years now but is still awaiting parliamentary approval. In the SEA, it is stated that, while the Ministry of Energy and Water was, at the time, still pushing for the onshore pipeline, the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation wants to revive the railway line envisioned as the route for the pipeline. Parliamentarian Mohammad Qabbani — who heads the legislature’s Energy, Water and Public Works Committee — says the project raises major safety concerns, and while he stops short of saying that parliament will not approve it, he was not hopeful that it will come to pass. Noting that to build the onshore pipeline, existing property on the rail line would have to be demolished and Palestinian refugees would have to be resettled — along with the fact that coastal erosion could seriously impair the pipeline’s ability to stay onshore — the SEA authors stop short of calling the idea a disaster, but end a list of problems with the pipeline — for which no environmental assessment had been conducted — by writing that “the proposal demonstrates why detailed and transparent Environmental and Social Impact Assessments are considered mandatory for sensible planning, development and project management.”

Work ahead

The SEA also argues that Lebanon lacks a national oil spill response plan. The second volume of the eight volume document is RPS’s recommendation for such a plan. What will become of it, however, is unclear. Executive was unable to speak with the LPA about the SEA in detail, however, in mid-September, the LPA announced on its website in a procurement notice that it was looking for a third party to provide “professional services for the preparation of a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan.” Additionally, the LPA will have assistance in developing a response plan from a new project partially funded by the UN called Sustainable Oil and Gas Development in Lebanon (SODEL). The three year, $2.2 million project launched in May 2014 is designed to work with the LPA on developing and implementing industry specific health, safety and environmental regulations. SODEL will also write policy recommendations for the best use of resource revenues.

Among other concerns, the SEA also notes that Lebanese institutions lack capacity for oil and gas activities, something the government should work on addressing in the not too distant future.

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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