The Middle East is home to some of the fastest growing, most resource-scarce, and conflict-affected countries in the world.
New Security Beat’s “Middle East at the Crossroads” series takes a look at the most challenging population, health, environment, and security issues facing the region.
It doesn’t take much to get Israel and Lebanon at each other’s throats these days, given that the two neighbors engaged in a significant war in 2006
. That conflict remains an open wound, as the two sides remain technically at war to this day. Periodic cross-border flare-ups
— most recently over the cutting down of a tree on their shared border, which left one Israeli and three Lebanese dead — show neither side has to be pushed far to trigger an outbreak of violence.
In recent months, a new wrinkle — and a new source of potential conflict — has been added to bilateral relations, with the discovery of significant natural gas reserves under Mediterranean waters off both countries’ coasts. The find has sparked a scramble from Beirut and Jerusalem, as the two energy-hungry nations look to capitalize on the deposits and exploit the reserves. For both Israel and Lebanon, developing the natural gas potential of this swath of the eastern Mediterranean could augment energy supply, and even pave the way to a greener energy future. But fears of a military stand-off over the resource lurk just around the corner, given that much of the extractable natural gas in question lies under contested waters.
Maritime Border Undefined
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the recoverable amount of natural gas reserves, which lie in an area known as the Levant Basin Province, to be 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf). While not a huge find by global standards — the world consumed 110 tcf of natural gas in 2008 — the discovery is a potential game-changer in terms of the energy security of both Israel and Lebanon. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2007 Israel produced only four percent of the total energy it consumed, while Lebanon generated just three percent of the energy it used. With the natural gas bonanza, not only would the two countries become more self-sufficient in meeting their own domestic energy needs, there is also speculation they could even one day become natural gas exporters.
The question that is only now beginning to be addressed is who controls what. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, every coastal country has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 200 miles off its shoreline. But in certain bodies of water, EEZ territorial claims have overlapped, with one of those areas disputed being the Mediterranean.
At this point, much of the known reserves appear to lie firmly in Israeli territorial waters, one of the reasons Israel has outpaced Lebanon in moving to drill for the resource. But Lebanese leaders — long concerned about the prospect of Israel infringing upon Lebanon’s sovereignty — have sounded the alarm, claiming that a substantial amount of the reserves may lie in Lebanese territorial waters. Further complicating matters is the fact that the two countries’ maritime border has remained unfixed since the end of the 2006 war, meaning that each country could have a legitimate claim that the other is trespassing on its sovereign territory in pursuit of the gas.
Hinting at a Physical Confrontation
The stakes appear high. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ali Hamdan, an assistant to Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, issued a strong-worded statement on potential Israeli drilling in disputed waters. “Lebanon fears that Israel, based on its history of occupying our lands and stealing our water, will drill in Lebanon’s waters and steal its natural resources,” Hamdan asserted. “Lebanon strongly warns Israel from drilling its natural gas. It will not tolerate violations of its sovereignty.”
In recent weeks, the Lebanese government has also taken steps to secure what it can, announcing plans to start doling out contracts for underwater exploration of the Levant Basin Province’s natural gas and oil reserves. Beirut is also putting together documents outlining what it considers to be the actual Israeli-Lebanese maritime border, which it plans to submit to the UN Security Council for consideration.
For its part, Israel has pledged that it will be drilling for natural gas only in waters under its control. At the same time, however, the country has refused to back down to Lebanese threats against its natural gas development activities and infrastructure, warning that it will not hesitate to meet force with force. The posturing reveals how strategically important the exploitation of the gas reserves is for both countries. With Lebanon’s population expected to grow by some 400,000 between 2010 and 2025, and Israel’s population projected to grow by 1.8 million in the same time period, there is an acute awareness in both Beirut and Jerusalem that energy demand will be rising in the near future.
A “Bridge Fuel” to a Cleaner Energy Future?
Despite the very real conflict potential of the new natural gas find, the presence of significant reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has also been the cause for limited optimism. In addition to helping ease the oil- and coal-dependence of Israel, Lebanon, and their neighbors, the heightened integration of natural gas into the region’s energy infrastructure may help substantially cut down on carbon emissions, since natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. (In 2008, Israel and Lebanon pumped 70.21 metric tons and 14.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, respectively, owing largely to their heavy reliance on coal and petroleum.)
Natural gas is also a versatile energy source for electricity production that can be used by the region’s households, businesses, and factories alike. As a result, not only could natural gas’s rising profile in Israel and Lebanon’s respective energy portfolios help improve air quality, it could also accelerate the development of low-polluting, natural gas–fueled automobiles and public transit.
But even given such environmental benefits, the environmental picture is not all rosy. The underwater extraction of natural gas poses potentially severe risks to the maritime environment, one of the reasons that Israelis living in the northern part of the country have steadfastly opposed any potential drilling. (Another source of local residents’ concern has been that the physical infrastructure needed to harvest, store, and later distribute natural gas overland could prove a highly attractive target for Hezbollah-linked militants based in Lebanon.)
In the end, drilling for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean by both Israel and Lebanon will undoubtedly move forward. The real question is whether given the controversy already unleashed by the Levant Basin Province reserves, Israel and Lebanon will eventually find it in their own enlightened self-interests to strike an accord on developing the region’s natural gas — or instead unleash missiles to protect what they consider rightfully theirs.
Sources: Center for American Progress, Earth Times, National Public Radio, New York Times, Population Reference Bureau, U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington Post, Yalibnan.com.
Photo Credit: “UNIFIL Vessel Patrols Lebanese Coast,” courtesy of flickr user United Nations Photo.