Beirut - On Friday, Lebanon moved forward with its first offshore exploration lease by celebrating a contract signing with Total, Eni and Novatek. Israel vigorously protested the news, which will allow the foreign consortium to explore reserves in Lebanon’s Block 9 - an offshore area that includes waters contested by Israel. Three out of the ten lease blocks in the nation’s first ever offshore auction border on disputed waters: “Today, we announce that we have started our petroleum path... after signing the agreements and launching the exploration activities,” said Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil at a launch ceremony. The contracts were signed in January, long before the formal announcement.
While Block 9 includes areas that are also claimed by Israel, Total says that only 8 percent of the actual lease is contested, and no drilling activity will occur in the section that is in dispute: “Given that the main prospects are located more than 25 km (15.5 miles) from the disputed area, the consortium confirms that the exploration well on Block 9 will have no interference at all with any fields or prospects located south of the border area,” Total said in a statement. For its part, Israel says that it is the rightful owner of Block 9, and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has denounced the proposed exploration activity as “provocative.” Lebanon’s waters have never been explored, and seismic surveys suggest that they hold potential. Total will begin its drilling campaign in Block 4, an area far to the north of the contested region, and it expects the project to start next year. The deal requires the consortium to drill at least one well per year. Israel and Lebanon are longtime enemies, and their relationship varied between war and low-level conflict between 1978 and 2006. A ceasefire at the end of the 2006 Lebanon War ushered in a period of relative calm, but their relations remain tense.