BEIRUT // Lebanon moved a step closer to setting its maritime border with Israel yesterday, after its parliament passed a law to determine the disputed sea boundary.
The move paves the way for exploration of an area believed to hold rich offshore energy reserves that could generate billions of dollars. But it comes at a time of growing tension over the border.
"We had to pass this law without delay, especially because Israel and Cyprus have started to drill for oil," Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker, said yesterday in the house session.
Lebanon is expected to submit the law, which allows the country to define its exclusive economic zone (Eez) and begin exploratory drilling for natural gas and oil in the Mediterranean Sea to the UN.
Israel's cabinet approved on July 10 the demarcation of its northern maritime border after Lebanon complained Israel's drilling for natural gas and oil encroached on its territory. Hizbollah has pledged to protect the country's offshore resources.
The law defines Lebanon's Eez as a sea zone that gives a state the right to explore for maritime resources.
"This is significant as it defines our right to this maritime area," said Mohammad Qabbani, an MP with the Future Movement party and the head of the parliamentary committee that drafted the law.
The actual co-ordinates of Lebanon's maritime borders will be finalised with neighbouring states later, Mr Qabbani said.
The disputed zone with Israel is about 854 square km.
Despite the lingering questions about the final borders, Michael Williams, the UN co-ordinator for Lebanon, has in recent weeks publicly encouraged both states to explore for offshore oil and gas reserves.
Mr Williams said last month Lebanon was about seven years behind Israel in terms of offshore gas exploration. Israel has already discovered two gas fields off its coast, known as Leviathan and Tamar.
Last month, the US stressed it would not be drawn into the border dispute. In an e-mailed statement, the US embassy in Beirut said Washington would "not endorse either Israel or Lebanon's claims" and urged a diplomatic resolution to the issue.
Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war. This year, Lebanon plans to sell oil and gas exploration permits in its waters, a proposal announced last month by the prime minister, Nejib Mikati.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News