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ISRAEL, LEBANON: Politicians trade threats over right to gas reserves

June 26, 2010 |  9:10 am

Picture 25 Huge natural gas reserves claimed by Israel and Lebanon could spark the next round of fighting between the two warring states.

On Thursday, Israeli infrastructure minister Uzi Landau told Bloomberg news that Israel "will not hesitate to use force" to protect its investment in three fields, the largest of which, the Leviathan, is estimated to hold 16 trillion cubic feet of gas worth billions of dollars.

Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri struck back, telling the Lebanese daily An-Nahar in an interview published Friday that "the best way to respond to Israeli threats is to quickly take action" by approving a proposal for oil and gas exploration off the coast of Lebanon.

Lebanon recently accused Israel of attempting to siphon natural gas from reserves off its northern coast that Lebanon says extend under territory rightfully controlled by Lebanon. Israel has denied this claim, maintaining the the field falls between Israel and Cyprus, with which it has reportedly worked out a deal to pay royalties in exchange for drilling.

Legally speaking, the field lies beyond the territorial waters of either country, which only extend 12 nautical miles (about 14 statute miles) offshore. Countries can declare an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from shore, but neither country appears to have done so. One Israeli expert told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that because the oil is under the Israeli continental shelf, there is no need to declare a stake.

Disputes like this are usually either worked out between the two countries or settled in international arbitration. But as enemy states, Lebanon and Israel could not come to such an agreement, and until Lebanon comes up with enough cash or investors to do its own oil and gas exploration, there isn't much it can do.

Which is why Berri is pushing the proposal for offshore exploration to counter Israel's claim to fields, which has also yielded preliminary evidence of oil.

“Lebanon must take immediate action to defend its financial, political, economic and sovereign rights,” Berri told parliament earlier this month. “Israel is racing to make the case a fait accompli and was quick to present itself as an oil emirate, ignoring the fact that, according to the maps, the deposit extends into Lebanese waters.”

The U.S. and Israeli companies that hold rights to the Leviathan and two other drilling sites plan to start fuel production by 2012. Israel is hoping the reserves will make it energy independent and transform its economy, while Lebanon sees the possibility of oil and gas wealth as a way to pay off its $50-billion debt.

Meris Lutz in Beirut and Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: An offshore platform for extracting natural gas off the coast of Spain. Credit: aherrero via Wikimedia Commons

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