Black Gold in the Mediterranean: Curse or blessing? The Eastern Mediterranean is starting to heat up again after the announcement, a couple of years ago, of the existence of gas fields between Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus.
In fact, the existence of hydrocarbons on the coasts of Lebanon were known to politicians and to professionals in the oil and gas world, over forty years ago. At the time it was believed that the exploration of such reserves was economically unfeasible. Today, with the price of oil averaging $80, powers to be have decided to unearth this matter.
The discovery of such reserves adds to the ills of the region. Lebanon is already at odds with Israel about the water reservoirs of the Litani running across the Southern part of the country. Now, they have an additional reason to fight.
Indeed, the tone is rising between the two neighbors. As the two countries are officially at war, they have no means of negotiating an agreement to define their respective exclusive economic zone (EEZ), that is to say, the maritime geographic space within which they are allowed to exploit their natural resources.
In the meantime, life goes on. Like Israel, Lebanon is heavily dependent on imports of oil and natural gas. They both consider energy independence as a national priority, given the problems currently afflicting the region. However, each country pursues its interests in a different manner.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed an agreement with the American company Noble Energy, and has started pumping gas in certain gas fields, Tamar and Leviathan, discovered in 2009 and 2010, respectively located 90 and 30 kilometers off the coast of Haifa. Noble, evaluates the natural resources of these two fields to be worth $45 billion approximately.
In May 2013, Israel completed exploratory drilling exercises in another area, Karish, an offshore zone in the Mediterranean. The gas field is located approximately 75 km from the Israeli coast of Haifa, and about 4 km from the Lebanese border. It is believed that this deposit contains around 1.5 billion (cubic feet) of natural gas.
Busy with its internal imbroglio, the Lebanese government has decided to use the only weapon at its disposal to pursue its rights; diplomacy. On many occasions, it has warned that the exploration by Israel of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, would impinge on its resources and would trigger new war between the two countries.
On the diplomatic front, it is believed that the United States is conducting secret negotiations to help broker a consensus among Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus.
The proper allocation of natural gas from these three fields alone, may help wipe out Lebanon’s chronic deficit. It suffers from one of the world's highest level of debts (about $ 58 billion in January 2013 representing 158% of its gross domestic product).
Legally, however, where does Lebanon stand? What about international law?
Lebanon has two avenues it may wish to explore under international law if it wishes to secure its rights over the fields in the Mediterranean Sea: One is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the other is the United Nations Security Council.
In 1995, Lebanon ratified the UNCLOS, which provides that a State can exploit the natural resources found in the waters that are nearly 370 miles from its shore, known as Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Unfortunately, Israel is not a party to this Convention, and as a result alleges that its provisions do not apply to it.
Article 55 of UNCLOS provides that the EEZ is "an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention.”
Furthermore, Article 56-1-A of UNCLOS provides that States whose EEZ is legally delimited and internationally recognized have "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds”
Accordingly, neither Lebanon nor Israel are legally authorized to operate under the seabed outside their territorial waters.
The problem is that Lebanon and Israel have not yet delimited their maritime boundaries. There are certain areas each claims belongs to it. Unfortunately, the armistice signed between the two countries in 1949 remains silent and does not deal with maritime borders. It is limited to the terrestrial borders in the South of Lebanon, known as the “UN Blue Line.”
An additional complexity lies in the fact that neither Lebanon nor Israel recognize the authority of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the only international body that has jurisdiction over disputes between countries. Should Lebanon decide to refer to the ICJ its dispute with Israel over maritime borders, it is necessary, as a condition precedent, that Israel recognizes the jurisdiction of the Court.
An alternative solution would be to refer the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, established by UNCLOS and this, despite the fact that Israel has not ratified UNCLOS. It remains nevertheless, bound by most of its provisions, in so far as the text is based on customary law which has universal value.
Seen in this light, Israel could be forced to comply with international maritime law.
However, since Lebanon does not possess the military force to impose its will on its neighbor in the South, it may want to refer to the UN Security Council. Indeed, Article 37-2 of the UN Charter states: "If the Security Council deems that the continuance of the dispute is in fact likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, it shall decide whether to take action under Article 36 or to recommend such terms of settlement as it may consider appropriate.”
Some scholars argue that the Lebanese government has the option to ask the UN Security Council to form a commission to demarcate the border between Israel and Lebanon, as it did in 1992 following the Iraq - Kuwait war, by way of SC resolution 833.
A similar resolution would certainly help put an end to the issue of borders between Israel and Lebanon.
However, is there any international consensus to put this matter to rest?
The UN record in this matter is not that clear cut. The Chebaa farms remain in dispute, and the Lebanese / Syrian borders remain unsettled, both matters resulting in interminable conflicts for Lebanon.
A new incentive for peace?
In the race to profit from the revenues the gas fields may generate, Lebanon is way behind Israel. The latter has already begun drilling for gas, while the Lebanon has not yet started to focus on the process, such as identifying blocks, finding potential investors, selecting bidders and starting the actual exploration.
As for most of the issues that are plaguing our country, the political forces within the successive governments have not yet reached a consensus on the manner in which to approach the exploration of gas reserves off the Mediterranean.
Irrespective of the options available under international law, the only way out for the parties would be to sit at a negotiating table, revisit the armistice, and agree on their respective EEZ.
Oil, gas, and water are matters of national security for Lebanon and its neighbors. Only predefined and secure borders can secure a durable peace and prosperity for the region.
We can only hope, that sooner rather than later, the protagonists will agree a modus vivendi that would allow each of Lebanon and Israel to explore their respective natural resources in a fair and equitable manner, to set aside war, and instead promote peace and economic cooperation in the interest of all the peoples of the region.
Erik W. Chiniara
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