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Offshore Drilling in Belize Falls Into Its Own Great Blue Hole

A little environmental success story (or energy exploration failure, if you prefer) for this Earth Day.
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Brain and tube corals of the Great Blue Hole. (PHOTO: JAYHEM/FLICKR)

Brain and tube corals of the Great Blue Hole. (PHOTO: JAYHEM/FLICKR)

Last week the Supreme Court of Belize struck down contracts for offshore oil exploration that the nation’s government had issued in 2004 and 2007 and extended in 2009. Drilling would have been in the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world and home to unique features like the Great Blue Hole and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

But a couple of signal events had occurred between the issuance of those contracts and today, namely the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a change of government in Belize. The BP spill didn’t affect Belize directly, but it did energize both green NGOs and the Belizean citizenry to question offshore oil. That included a public—i.e. not government sanctioned—plebiscite last year that unsurprisingly, given its anti-oil sponsors, rejected offshore drilling. (But before being too dismissive of the results, about eight percent of Belize’s total population did vote in balloting that was carefully conducted among registered voters. The same sponsors had tried for an official referendum, but the then-pro-drilling government shot it down.)

In last week’s court ruling, Justice Oswell Legall (excellent name for a judge!) argued that “allowing oil exploration before any assessment of its effects on the environment is not only irresponsible, but reckless, especially in a situation where Belize may not be fully capable of handling effectively an oil spill.”

There were concerns that the oil companies given the right to drill exploratory wells weren’t experienced enough or prepared to deal with a major snafu. That’s a judgment call, but looking over an environmental impact assessment prepared for one of the putative drillers (erstwhile hotelier Princess Energy) does not inspire the confidence in thoroughness or even seriousness as might similar documents I've seen for oil drilling work proposed off Pacific Standard’s home on the California coast. (California has, of course, a very strong movement to block additional drilling of its coast.)

The decision axing these specific contracts doesn’t block offshore drilling, and onshore drilling is proceeding in Belize after years of dry holes suddenly turned wet. Belize's biggest homegrown environmental challenge is tourism, and it has juggled that moneyspinner (kinda) successfully for years. Oil’s siren song presumably would be strong in the poor country, as this charming history suggests:

The current United Democratic Party government has made an election promise to establish a Belize Petroleum Trust Fund to benefit all Belizeans which [sic] much needed social programs. Some 60 percent of Belizeans are classified as living in poverty. But more than three years after taking office, the trust fund is yet to be established and all oil revenues—estimated at $120 million—are absorbed by the government for its day to day operations. The government claims that crushing debts has forced it to channel oil revenues into government coffers and is hoping for new oil finds to be able to help meet election promises.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at Vince Beiser’s recent piece for Pacific Standard on the wealth of fossil fuels still sequestered in Mother Earth. He suggested that, given the huge reserves still located “in places we’d scarcely even thought to look before,” that money was the magic lubricant to free up the pumps and develop innovative technology. But as Belize has shown—and as the various fracking debates in the States suggest—the will to drill is often just as important. Whether that will erodes as prices for petroleum inevitably rise, and oil potentially challenges tourism as Belize's top economic driver, is a different question.