Lebanon is again buzzing with excitement over its potential oil and gas resources. After a near three-year delay, in early January the government passed two decrees needed to begin exploring for oil and gas in Lebanon’s offshore waters. Last week, alongside other civil society stakeholders, Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative (LOGI) advisory board member and MENA energy governance expert, Laury Haytayan appeared on national television to discuss several crucial issues of concern. LOGI cofounder Georges Sassine joined by telephone to question government promises of transparency and insist on civil society’s inclusion in managing this new sector.
The quick passage of the decrees invoked suspicion that political interference was to blame for the lengthy delay and questions linger over how the industry will be managed and regulated. In the previous government, an inter-ministerial committee was tasked with studying the technical details of the decrees but in retrospect the committee appears to have been a tool to delay progress while building political consensus on how to move forward. After the decrees were ratified on January 4 newly appointed minister of state for human rights, Ayman Choucair, lamented that not enough time was given to study the matter. It appears that not all politicians are on the same page and, nearly three weeks after their ratification, the decrees were finally published on the Lebanese Petroleum Administration’s website.
Sassine insists that politicians not interfere with government institutions working to prepare Lebanon for oil and gas exploration and the management of the sector, and other civil society stakeholders agree. Haytayan asserted that transparency is the key to building the public’s trust in the government’s ability to manage the sector. Sami Atallah, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a local think tank, agreed that the steps taken so far do not conform to transparency standards. Atallah pointed out that civil society has an important role in the management of Lebanon’s oil and gas monitoring the work of the government and questioning it when needed.
This was not the first time civil society insisted on its inclusion in decision-making for the new sector. LOGI sounded the alarm back in August 2016 when Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil met for a closed-door meeting raising suspicion then that decisions about Lebanon’s oil and gas were being made away from public scrutiny and debate. LOGI insists the sector should develop according to international standards allowing the appropriate government institutions to design and implement sound policy for a sustainable sector.
Demands by LOGI and civil society to be a part of decision-making and to remove politics from the equation have received limited response. Sassine called on newly appointed minister of energy and water Cesar Abi Khalil, an advisor to the two previous energy ministers, to connect with civil society and leverage their input in developing an oil and gas sector meeting transparency standards that the government has repeatedly promised. The Lebanese Petroleum Administration, an advisory body to the ministry of energy, has held several workshops and consultations with civil society its current president, Wissam Chbat, pointed out. But Sassine argued this as insufficient and stressed that without a legally defined role for civil society in oil and gas decision-making leaves public concerns half listened to at best.
Moreover Haytayan urged the government to establish and share a clear vision of its plan for the sector, “Maybe among themselves they know what their vision for the project is, but until now we do not,” Haytayan said. Announcing the decrees earlier this month Abi Khalil promised a roadmap for the sector and the indication is that it might be delivered soon. But no input was requested from civil society in drafting such a strategy, again ignoring calls by civil society to be an active partner in the decision-making process.