A group of 46 firms have qualified to bid on a first round of licences to explore Lebanese offshore gas fields, with 12 qualified to bid as operators, the energy minister said on Thursday.
“This is a new step forward towards the entry of Lebanon into the world of oil,” Gebrane Bassil said during a press conference to announce the qualifiers.
The bidding round is scheduled to begin on May 2.
Of the 52 companies that entered the pre-qualification process, 12 qualified as potential operators, and another 34 as potential non-operators able to participate indirectly in the exploitation of Lebanon’s offshore gas reserves.
The 12 include US firms Anadarko, Chevron and ExxonMobil, Europe’s Total, Repsol, Shell, Maersk, Statoil and Eni; Brazil’s Petrobras, Malaysia’s Petronas Carigili and Japan’s Inpex.
The bidding will be open until November 4, Bassil said, adding that tender specifications had been finalised but needed to be approved by the cabinet.
Lebanon currently has a caretaker government, following the resignation of prime minister Najib Mikati, but Bassil said he hoped to move forward quickly.
“Lebanon has lost a lot of time. It’s our responsibility to maintain companies’ interest in Lebanon… We will try to avoid any delay as a result of the absence of the government,” he said.
In January, Bassil said Lebanon hoped to have exploration contracts with international oil companies signed and sealed by the end of the year.
He has played down the risk of conflict with Israel over the potential reserves, despite a longstanding dispute over the maritime boundary between the two neighbours, which remain technically in a state of war.
In August, parliament passed a law setting Lebanon’s maritime boundary and Exclusive Economic Zone.
But Lebanon has submitted to the United Nations a maritime map that conflicts significantly with one proposed by Israel, arguing that its map is in line with an armistice accord drawn up in 1949, an agreement not contested by Israel.
The disputed zone consists of about 854 square kilometres (330 square miles), and suspected energy reserves there could generate billions of dollars.
Lebanon has been slow to exploit its maritime resources compared with other eastern Mediterranean countries, with Israel, Cyprus and Turkey much further along in the process of drilling for oil and gas.