Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


brain-coral

Offshore Drilling in Belize Falls Into Its Own Great Blue Hole

• April 22, 2013 • 12:21 PM

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

A little environmental success story (or energy exploration failure, if you prefer) for this Earth Day.

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.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

What Makes You Neurotic?

A new study gets to the root of our anxieties.

Fecal Donor Banks Are Possible and Could Save Lives

Defrosted fecal matter can be gross to talk about, but the benefits are too remarkable to tiptoe around.

How Junk Food Companies Manipulate Your Tongue

We mistakenly think that harder foods contain fewer calories, and those mistakes can affect our belt sizes.

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014