The Cabinet Thursday approved the recently awarded licenses for a consortium of three international oil companies setting the path for exploration of oil and gas in 2019, setting the stage for Lebanon to join the list of energy-producing countries. The much-anticipated decision came during a session headed by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace to discuss a 145-item agenda.
The session also signaled the reactivation of the government’s work after Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation last month. The ministers adjourned after discussing 35 items, including a plan to expand the Costa Brava and Burj Hammoud landfills.
Cabinet approved Energy Ministry’s request to license three companies – French company Total, Italian ENI and Russian Novatek – to explore oil and gas in maritime blocks 4 and 9 that lie in north and south Lebanon, respectively.
Speaker Nabih Berri praised the move, saying that even before extraction the decision improves Lebanon’s economic and financial standings.
“Among its several benefits is that it will provide jobs for thousands of Lebanese,” Berri told visitors.
He added that restricting exploration to blocks 4 and 9 was to Lebanon’s benefit. “From the beginning, I was against awarding all the  blocks,” Berri said.
During the Cabinet session, Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil presented the results of his negotiations with the oil companies to Cabinet before it approved the decision.
“Congratulations to the Lebanese people on the approval of the oil item and Lebanon’s entry into the club of oil [producing] countries,” Abi Khalil tweeted after the session.
After Cabinet ended, he said that the next step would be informing the companies and asking them to sign the contracts along with paying certain guarantees.
“Drilling wells will start at the beginning of 2019. Let’s see if there is a possibility of developing the domain,” he said.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil also lauded the decision, saying that it brought to end years of unfairness.
“Years of … injustice against us and against Lebanon ended in a few minutes of truth in Cabinet,” Bassil tweeted with the hashtag: “#Lebanon_is_an_oil_country.”
However, an oil and gas expert said the process of bidding and negotiations leading up to the decision lacked transparency.
“The recommendation [was to accept the agenda item] because, Abi Khalil said, it was feasible for Lebanon – but they didn’t disclose the bid,” Diana Kaissy, the Executive Director of NGO the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative, told The Daily Star. “We don’t know [technical details], again, because it was not disclosed,” Kaissy said.
“They closed the first licensing round in October, with one offer for two different blocks from a consortium of three companies,” she said.
Cabinet’s meeting Thursday was the second since Hariri announced his resignation from his post in November and his retraction of his decision last week. It also came in light of last week’s U.S. announcement of the recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Cabinet blasted U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision and his plan to move the U.S. Embassy there saying that it was an illegitimate decision adding that it supported the Palestinian people’s fight against this decision. Bassil then proposed the opening of a Lebanese Embassy in East Jerusalem, which is under Israeli occupation.
Earlier in the day, he announced on Twitter that he had informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of his willingness to open a diplomatic mission in East Jerusalem, which Abbas reportedly offered to assist with to achieve the goal quickly.
Ministers then decided to form a ministerial committee, headed by Hariri, to discuss the suggestion.
Berri informed visitors that he had received a call from Amal Movement affiliated Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil during the Cabinet discussion and the speaker expressed his rejection of Bassil’s proposal. “This is something that I can’t approve, the intentions are good … but for us there is one Jerusalem for Palestine,” he said.
Items endorsed by Cabinet included an agreement on recruiting 2,000 additional male members to the Internal Security Forces for 2018 at the request of the interior minister.
Ministers also agreed on an initial study aimed at expanding the Dbayeh-Oqaibeh highway in an attempt to reduce congestion on the busy road.
“The initial study was discussed and … a decision was taken to form a plan to [establish] a new highway from Dbayeh to Oqaibeh,” Antoun Souaid, adviser to Aoun, told The Daily Star.
Souaid stressed that the project won’t affect the towns in the areas where new tunnels are built for the road.
“The highway would connect Dbayeh with Jeita and then passes through the mountains of Kesrouan … to eventually connect to the highway that is already in Oqaibeh,” he added.
The Cabinet also appointed Judge Mohammad Makkawi as governor for Mount Lebanon and Judge Kamal Abou Jaoude as governor for the Bekaa, Information Minister Melhem Riachi said adding that the Cabinet agreed on Environment Ministry’s roadmap to combat pollution in the Qaraoun Lake and Litani River.
At the beginning of the session, Aoun briefed ministers on his trip to Istanbul Wednesday, where he attended an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, held to discuss Trump’s decision.
Aoun told the ministers that Lebanon’s position in Istanbul had been successful and that his meetings with Arab officials had shown that the majority of countries are opposed to Trump’s decision.
After Aoun’s remarks, Hariri also praised Lebanon’s position in Istanbul. He claimed that the U.S. decision would never have been made if Arab states were not embroiled in war and conflict. The premier reiterated the importance of respecting Lebanon’s dissociation from regional conflicts, thanking the support that several countries have shown including France and the U.S.
“We should prevent any external actor from interfering in Lebanon’s affairs or using Lebanese soil as a platform to send regional messages. Lebanon did not solicit Arab or regional offers to defend it,” Hariri said, implicitly referring to a recent visit conducted by Qais al-Khazali, the head of Iraqi-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to south Lebanon.
A video surfaced last week of Khazali touring the southern border, drawing criticism from several officials who underscored the need to preserve the recently endorsed dissociation policy.
Addressing Aoun and the ministers, Hariri said that now that the Cabinet’s work has been reactivated, ensuring social stability was vital.
“Dialogue and objective discussion is the basis for the government’s success in facing challenges on all levels, and serving citizens should be at the forefront,” Hariri said.
On the political level, local MTV channel reported that there were side-talks during the Cabinet session between Riachi – who represents the Lebanese Forces – and the Future Movement ministers of culture, Ghattas Khoury, and interior, Nouhad Machnouk,
MTV added that Hariri then joined the discussion that focused on the relationship between the Future Movement and the LF, which has been tense since Hariri’s resignation.
Meanwhile, at a news conference, LF leader Samir Geagea announced that Social Affairs Minister Pierre Bou Assi would the party’s candidate for one of the Maronite seats in Baabda’s administrative district.
-The Daily Star Lebanon