In January of this year OCEANA Belize and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) issued vehement objections to the draft petroleum guidelines for exploration and extraction developed by the Geology and Petroleum Department of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology and Public Utilities following a wide release by the Department late in 2014 and again a few weeks before their responses. The organizations and their fellows in the environmental community contend that by putting just about all of Belize up for potential oil exploration and eventually extraction as the guidelines propose, and allowing everything from seismic exploration to actual extraction pending the usual environmental assessments, the Government risks irreparable damage to natural resources that provide thousands of jobs in tourism, fishing and other sectors, as well to the fragile marine environment. The guidelines were put forward just as a team from the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was visiting Belize to consult on conservation plans for the Belize Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site now listed as “endangered” due to damage caused by various incidents and the Government’s attitude toward development. Today OCEANA and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage co-hosted a press conference in Belize City to update the press on their contribution to the discussion. OCEANA Vice-President Janelle Chanona presented the bundle of documents sent to the Department in March, headed by a letter to Minister the Hon. Sen. Joy Grant, and summarized their position as expressed in that letter.
“Essentially the guidelines do not provide for adequate protection of Belize’s barrier reef which is fundamentally important for our economy and culture. There is no apparent effort to balance the risk from potential oil activities to the sea and economy with the benefits that might occur in the future, ensure that propose guidelines do not comfort with the law or with governments more fundamental obligation to manage our Marine resources for the best of our Belizean people. Rather than pushing forward to put our marine resources at risk, we should take the opportunity to learn from other countries experiences and laws.”
Geology and Petroleum Director Andre Cho wrote back to OCEANA earlier this month acknowledging receipt of their information and promising to review it and call a meeting with stakeholders as soon as possible. But is the Government really serious about consulting with the environmentalists, considering that their position is and remains a firm “no” to offshore drilling while the Government is just as determined to pursue petroleum as big business? We asked Chanona about that and she said that the guidelines remain much as they were from as many as five years ago, with no apparent changes based on what has happened since then, although in her view there should have been.
“I believe based on purely the legal action from the NGO community, Princess took Blue Hole off the chopping block. The company in the south took Glovers Reef off the chopping block and then here is our Ministry of Energy putting everything back up except a very tiny area in northern Ambergris Caye. I share in your confusion because we are just as confused as to how this map end up being the draft. Totally irrespective of everything that have been said and done before.
As for the UNESCO visit, Prime Minister Dean Barrow is quoted as saying he was willing to chart a course forward on key management requirements for the sustainable future of the Reef, and says Government intends to prohibit oil exploitation within and adjacent to the protected areas in the Belize Barrier Reef System. However, the seven areas are surrounded by support systems that are not exclusive. Executive Director of the Coalition Tanya Williams says that plans to bypass protected areas are misguided.
“Yesterday, the World Heritage Committee actually released a statement saying that they are going to be working with the government on a three-year plan and that plan should address oil concessions in Belize. We have to now push to ensure that we see that three-year plan because we don’t know what that plan will look like. We know what we have recommended to them, but we don’t know what that plan will look like. I know what the government is recommending to them is that they put buffers around the marine protected areas, which makes up the world heritage sites, which makes no sense. When you think about it, it is not land, where you can put up a block and say I am going to block off oil if there is an oil spill. The marine environment is so dynamic that you can’t block it off, so a buffer does not work. When we did our buffer system, when we applied a buffer, it actually blocked off the whole entire offshore. So it will be interesting to see what is being recommended.”
OCEANA is also using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information about petroleum companies’ activities in Belize.