Lebanon News

Abi Khalil, Algeria studying ‘loophole’ electricity solution

Lebanese women look from a window in a building covered with electricity wires in the nothern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 13, 2016. / AFP / PATRICK BAZ

BEIRUT: Caretaker Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil said Friday that he was working with longtime fuel supplier to Lebanon Algeria to find a “loophole” solution to secure fuel for the country amid serious concerns over supply. The move comes after a lack of funds to buy additional fuel for Lebanon’s power plants has caused a recent increase in electricity rationing, which means longer power cuts across the country, except in Beirut.

Electricite du Liban had warned of a potential shortfall more than a year ago, an EDL source told The Daily Star, but the government failed to secure the funds necessary to purchase extra fuel. This led the company to increase rationing in order to preserve its fuel reserves, the source said.

Abi Khalil told The Daily Star that he and his Algerian counterpart were discussing ways that Lebanon could receive fuel from the country without having to pay for it immediately.

“We’ve been working with Algeria for 13 years [in the energy sector]. [The Algerian energy minister] said he will send us the fuel without us paying for it. It’s a kind of loophole,” he said.

Even though a decree published Oct. 18 in the Official Gazette stated LL642 billion ($426 million) should be provided to buy the required fuel, Abi Khalil said the “loophole” solution was necessary because, despite the decree, Parliament needs to pass legislation enabling the finance minister to disburse the extra-budgetary funds to buy the fuel.

But the ongoing issues with government formation make it unclear when Parliament will meet next.

Deputy Parliament Speaker MP Elie Ferzli told The Daily Star that Speaker Nabih Berri “will very likely call a legislative session soon,” after he postponed setting a date last month because, at the time, Cabinet formation seemed imminent.

“It had seemed we would be holding a session to discuss the Cabinet’s policy statement, after which we would hold a legislative session,” Ferzli said. “But what happened, happened,” he added, referring to the latest snag in government formation.

Earlier this week, six Sunni MPs from outside the Future Movement again insisted on receiving representation in the next government.

Their demand, supported by Hezbollah, is likely the last obstacle to be overcome in the now 5-month-old process of political wrangling, but so far no solutions are in sight.

Some political forces, including the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces, have said they do not believe Parliament should convene to pass legislation until the government is formed, except for when discussing “legislation of necessity.”

But the Constitution does not put any restrictions on Parliament legislating while a caretaker government is in place, constitutional expert Lara Karam Bustany previously told The Daily Star.

“This would go against the spirit of the Constitution,” she said.

Just last month, Parliament met to pass a raft of laws considered “legislation of necessity.”

What is less clear is whether laws, once endorsed by Parliament, can be implemented because this requires implementation decrees to be signed by both the president and the prime minister. The latter position is currently in caretaker status.

Even if laws could be implemented, convening MPs again now for a legislative session would be politically divisive given objections from major political parties.

Some blocs might not even attend, threatening a lack of quorum.

But according to Ferzli, “Parliament is the sole legislative authority; of course it can meet without a government. It can even endorse a new Constitution without a government.” Those who claim otherwise, he added, “are creating a new constitutional precedent that I am not familiar with. There is a clear separation between the executive branch and the legislative.”

Amid the uncertainty, the EDL source said Lebanon’s energy supply had already been cut by more than 200 megawatts - about 10 percent of the country’s total energy capacity - as part of precautionary measures taken by EDL in light of its dwindling fuel reserves.

Abi Khalil said his backup plan to procure the Algerian fuel has been held up because Nov. 1 was a public holiday in Algeria and Friday is the weekend there. Even so, the EDL source said that the state-owned energy company “knew this problem was coming, and we have been asking the relevant ministries to find a solution to this for more than year. We’ve sent over 20 written requests. I don’t know why nothing happened [in all that time].”

Beirut currently continues to enjoy 21 hours a day of state-supplied electricity, the source said, while the rest of the country has recently seen large decreases. The source could not specify the exact number of hours of extra power cuts residents have experienced because the number fluctuates.

And the decrease will continue incrementally, the source added. “We may get to a point where we need to entirely shut off some production units.”

The issue comes at a somewhat inopportune moment, as during the autumn and winter months, Lebanon’s residents are used to having a brief respite from the massive power cuts they experience during summer because of soaring electricity demand.

An emergency solution to the chronic energy crisis was meant to have been implemented by last summer until new power plants are built to fill the supply gap. But the tendering process for the stopgap plan was invalidated three times and is currently stalled on its fourth attempt, awaiting a government.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 03, 2018, on page 1.

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