Contending that British Petroleum’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has “opened Belizeans’ eyes,” opponents of oil exploration in Belize are seeking a referendum to block oil exploration and production off the country’s coast, home to the world’s second-largest barrier reef.
A group of environmental and tourism leaders formed recently launched a referendum to ban offshore exploration, says attorney and offshore-oil opposition leader Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who is vice president of the marine conservation group Oceana’s Belize office.
Government officials, however, appear determined to continue onshore and offshore oil-exploration efforts, the latter of which have yet to yield a producing well. They view oil revenues as a potential boost to the country’s economy. And they downplay the opposition campaign, which Andre Cho, the government’s oil director, described in an interview with EcoAméricas as “making a lot of noise.” Said Cho: “I don’t think a moratorium is possible.”
Belize has granted oil-exploration concessions to 18 companies, six of which have offshore exploration contracts, according to Cho. Privately held Belize Natural Energy currently is producing 4,000 barrels of crude oil a day at the Spanish Lookout field in central Belize—the only oil-producing site in the country thus far.
Supporters cite economy
The country could generate up to US$900 million a year from offshore oil, Belizean officials say. That, they argue, could help bolster a national economy that shrank 1.1% last year as tourism revenues fell amid the global slump. Cho argues it also would help close Belize’s fiscal gap, thanks to royalties of 7.5% and other oil-related revenues.
Oceana’s Matura-Shepherd and others who oppose offshore drilling argue that the government is putting oil production above environmental protection. She suggests authorities are also taking international-relations risks, pointing out that the government granted an offshore concession to Island Oil, of which Guatemala’s Petdegua state oil company is the main shareholder, even though the territory is in dispute with the Guatemalan government.
The BP spill, she says, heightened such concerns: “It really opened Belizeans’ eyes when the BP oil spill occurred.”
Opposition to offshore drilling was bolstered recently when the country’s tourism board joined the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage, she says. A prime focus of the coalition’s referendum campaign is Belize’s status as steward of the northern hemisphere’s largest barrier-reef system, declared a natural World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1996, as well as of offshore atolls, sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries.
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System illustrates the evolutionary history of reef development and provides significant habitat for threatened species, including sea turtles, manatees and the American marine crocodile.
Melanie McField, researcher for the Smithsonian Institution in Belize, says the reef already is under pressure from climate change, overfishing and coastal development. Smithsonian researchers have documented at least five coral bleaching events, caused by rising water temperatures, in which coral rejects algae that lives in its tissue, causing the coral to starve. Toxic chemicals released into the water during oil drilling could do more damage, she says.
Inevitable impacts seen
“The big threat in the back of the public’s mind, even if it is a slight probability, is a major accident like the one in the Gulf [of Mexico],” she says. “But even without that, it’s a dirty business. There’s no way of doing it clean.”
Cho insists Belizean law protects against the risk of environmental disasters such as the BP disaster. “If you have reefs, you have to apply the safeguards that are being developed to guard the reefs,” he says. “There are environmental laws and processes to get permits.”
Two offshore exploratory wells drilled last year bore no fruit, Cho says. Houston-headquartered Treaty Energy, partnering with a subsidiary of the Belizean casino consortium Princess Group International, is surveying its concession and plans to start its first well, onshore, in the coming weeks. Its concession covers 2,000,000 acres in three separate tracts; one offshore and two onshore.
“We just have to keep on drilling wells so we can make a big discovery,” Cho says. “Offshore discovery would be even better, because there may be several big fields.”
Prime Minister Dean Barrow told the weekly Amandala recently that Belize should not let fear about a repeat of the BP spill prompt a ban on Belizean offshore oil exploration.
“We have to proceed cautiously but I do not agree with any suggestion that we simply cut and run, that we say that there can never be offshore oil exploration in this country,” the Prime Minister said. “You don’t stop flying because there is a risk that the plane will crash. You don’t run off half-cocked and, because of what is admittedly a disaster in the States, foreclose on all your options.”
- Blake Schmidt