Political squabbles could undermine Lebanon gas sector -minister
* Lebanon has delayed offshore licensing round
* Caretaker government has limited powers
* Energy sector growth could help ease debt, outages
By Alexander Dziadosz
BEIRUT, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Lebanon's Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said on Wednesday political squabbling could undermine the country's nascent energy sector and hurt its international credibility if it dragged on.
The tiny Mediterranean country estimates its natural gas reserves at around 96 trillion cubic feet but has had to delay its first offshore licensing round because of disputes over forming a new government that could launch the bidding process.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March and his designated successor, Tammam Salam, has so far been unable to form a new government, leaving in charge a caretaker administration with limited powers.
Speaking at an oil and gas conference in Beirut, Bassil said the ministry was committed to carrying out the bidding round, but the government had not yet fulfilled its obligations.
"This is for political reasons ... which we are used to as Lebanese, but which we know the companies that have put their trust in us and invested millions of dollars will not understand," he said, urging politicians not to sacrifice Lebanon's credibility to score points against opponents.
Lebanon selected 46 companies in April to bid for gas exploration - 12 as operators and 34 as non-operators. In October, it delayed the licensing round until January.
Salah Khayat, chief executive officer of Petroleb, a Lebanese company that qualified for bidding, said the firm had expected hold-ups because of "political tensions" but thought things would go more smoothly after the first round.
"We are optimistic. We were anticipating delays, and so were the other qualified companies - specifically because you're in Lebanon, and Lebanon is a country where things take more time to progress," he said on the conference sidelines.
Nevertheless, Herman Neethling, business development manager at Shell Upstream, said the early collection of seismic data had helped speed the process.
"That gives a certain clarity already in terms of the prospectivity," he said.
Officials hope exploiting Lebanon's gas reserves will help the country deal with its debt and domestic power shortages.
Developing the energy sector would also be a boon for an economy hit by the Syrian civil war next door, which has hurt tourism, trade and investment.
Bassil said onshore exploration was also going ahead and initial results from a 2-D seismic survey were "encouraging".
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