Can oil turn Lebanon’s lights on?


Lebanon’s Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil could not contain his excitement when the country began its first petroleum licensing round last fall. “Congratulations to the Lebanese people on Lebanon entering the club of oil countries,” he said on social media.

Are congratulations really in order, though?
Lebanon’s homes and streets are still plagued by regular timed blackouts.

While the country secured bids by a consortium of three companies for two offshore exploration and drilling blocks, its people can barely obtain power to light up their living rooms.
“We time our lives around the electricity outages,” Tamer, 60, an architect, told Arab News.

“I can only go to the office at 12 when the electricity is back on so that I can use the elevator and not have to go up five flights of stairs,” said Tamer, who has back problems.

Electricity in the country works in shifts. In big cities such as Beirut, the power goes out every day for three hours and generators can be heard humming throughout the capital. In poorer and more rural areas, it is off for much longer, sometimes up to 10 hours a day.

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index for 2017-18, oil-producing Lebanon ranks 134th out of 137 countries for the quality and reliability of its electricity supply.

While politicians over the years have promised voters “economic independence” and “a 24/7 electricity supply,” the main question Lebanon’s people are asking is: Will Lebanon’s oil production have a positive or negative effect?

“Potential benefits can turn into disadvantages in the absence of several factors, such as good governance and strong institutions,” Jessica Obeid, former chief energy engineer at the UN Development Program (UNDP) in Beirut, told Arab News.

“Talks on using the — for now non-existent — revenues to pay off Lebanon’s high debt, or revive the economy, should not be taking place,” said Obeid, who is also an academy fellow at the UK think tank Chatham House. There will be “no concrete results” for another eight to 10 years, she said.
“The only certain thing from my perspective is that the country will face a series of serious challenges in developing its petroleum industry.”

So far, since the discovery of large oil fields off the coast of Lebanon in 2009, its people have witnessed a 29-month presidential vacuum, an infamous river of trash, and now continuous threats from Israel over a disputed oil and gas exploration block.

Lebanon and Israel have been contesting the rights to the 860 square kilometer triangular zone on the maritime border between the two nations. Israel has proposed formalizing maritime law in order to secure its right to the oil; Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, described this as “a declaration of war on Lebanon.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University this year that Lebanon’s plans to drill in the disputed offshore oil and gas field were “very, very challenging and provocative.”

With internal issues and political turmoil still causing delays and hindering the petroleum industry in Lebanon, other regional petroleum producers have emerged as strong competitors, Obeid said.

For now, Lebanon must look to alternative resources to ameliorate its electricity problems, while solving the problem in the longer term is a task left for future generations.


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