After two weeks in the States, we came home to the disturbing news that the Government of Belize has authorized oil exploration within six-tenths of a mile of the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef.
This is startling because the people of Belize spoke by referendum two years ago and rejected off-shore oil exploration. And just last year the government placed a moratorium on off-shore oil exploration and the sale of oil leases.
The barrier reef is a designated World Heritage site, meaning it merits the attention, care and protection of the entire planet. It is the longest continuous barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, extending the length of Belize and into Mexico to the north and into Guatemala and Honduras to the south.
Why the government would suddenly spring this on its own people is baffling.
I can guess.
- The government is deeply in debt. Newly discovered oil fields could be used as collateral for loans.
- Oil companies interested in exploiting the resources of this poorly developed nation are creating enormous pressure.
- The government hopes to reap the revenue from future oil tract sales, perhaps gambling that lease-holders will never call in their chips given the glut of oil in the world today.
- Belize desperately needs an infusion of cash for infrastructure, education, economic development and more. Is the government thinking oil is its cash cow/savior? How are you doing today, Argentina?
- And the one you hear often from the PUP opposition party: The UDP government is corrupt, bought and sold into the pockets of oil companies, real estate developers and other exploiters. But it wasn’t that long ago that PUP was tossed out for massive corruption. The growing pains of a young country never end, it seems.
All I know is that in a country where tourism and the gloriously beautiful reef and sparkling necklace of cayes accounts for 50 percent of the incomes of the citizens of Belize, offshore oil exploration is an insane road to go down.
It especially doesn’t make sense in the volatile oil markets where a barrel of oil is barely past the $50 mark and price is at the mercy of an Emir oil magnate with a head cold . . . or a U.S. presidential election . . . or the collapse of a South American economy . . . or a bad winter and leaky pipes in Western Canada.
Some folks say it might be handy to know what is out there so that when the time comes, when the oil markets return, Belize will be ready.
I don’t buy that and neither do the people of Belize.
First off, colonial exploiters have been sinking exploratory wells all over Belize since the 1930’s. At least. Do you see a booming oil industry on the mainland? Me neither.
Last December, Amandala reported that “16 offshore wells had been drilled in Belize since 1958, and Island Oil had been allowed to drill off Monkey River as recently as 2007.” And what? Still no offshore oil industry here? Seriously, doesn’t the oil industry have a three-strike rule like baseball? Big Oil runs around the globe like an aggressive dog, leaving its territorial markings where ever it can, I guess.
The idea of reselling oil leases over and over sounds suspiciously like the general real estate development strategy in Belize: Sell the crap out of a subdivision, declare bankruptcy, reboot with a new name. Repeat.
Second, if the nation has no intention of sinking oil wells along the barrier reef, as its people have spoken, then why document the unknown? Searching for oil is like putting a pistol in the hand of a street thug. Sooner or later it is going to be used — and the results will be traumatic.
Here is a statement from September, from the Ministry of Economic Development and Petroleum, outlining the “big picture” — the U.S. and Mexico, joined by Belize, are mapping areas not previously developed for oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and down the Yucatan into Belize.
The goal: “gather new regional data to advance the knowledge of the geology and hydrocarbon systems of these geological provinces.” In other words, find oil.
And finding oil means rigs, and rigs mean trouble. Yes, sir, right here in River City. That’s trouble and it is spelled o-i-l.
I know planting oil rigs does not mean that there has to be a corresponding oil spill but that is only one form of pollution. There is the visual pollution. The saddest sight in the world is the oil platforms off the Ventura, California coast that are disguised as islands with palm trees. You drive up the coast and your first thought is “Oh, there’s one of those fake oil islands. How pathetic.”
Then there is the pollution from support vessels and tankers that service oil platforms.
And, finally, because this is Belize and government oversight in so many areas is spotty, I don’t think a lot of people have faith in the self-regulation of oil exploiters. I think the government of Belize will have to calculate the devastating impact of an oil spill or two into any economic formula that rationalizes oil exploitation off the coast.
But why am I sitting here rationalizing the insanity of oil exploration off the coast of Belize? Anyone who has visited here or lives here or grew up here knows all this.
Yesterday, the people of Belize — with astounding global backing — showed their teeth to the government and forced a halt to the surprise oil exploration — temporarily. You want to see the face of determination? Just check out Karen Brodie’s photos from yesterday’s meetings. Yikes. And huzzah!
Two ships with sonic survey equipment hauled in their gear and allegedly headed for port. Allegedly.
If they had gotten any closer to Ambergris Caye, a blockade of San Pedro and Caye Caulker fishing and touring boats was prepared to meet them at sea.
Yesterday Amber Edwards of Ambergris Today live streamed to the world two key meetings of the public with officials.
Frankly at the moment Belize feels like a nation under siege. If Guatemala isn’t trying to take us over with bullying tactics at the border, then the global banking industry is playing hot potato with the country’s institutions. (Seriously? Our banks are more corrupt than Wells Fargo????). Or corruption from within is enriching political insiders in unprecedented numbers — or perhaps the exposure is just unprecedented.
And now this. Two oil exploration vessels materialize seemingly from nowhere and start trolling the coast, dropping sonic booms atop whales, sharks, reef fish, dolphins and manatees.
And even if they are doing the more-benign multi-beam marine floor mapping, it still begs the question: Why?
Multi-beam mapping leads to sonic deep-probing, leads to oil discoveries, leads to oil rigs and extraction, leads to environmental degradation, leads to . . . what?
Where will it end?
When will it end?