The full report of independent oil expert, Rick Steiner (who conducted a rapid environmental assessment on the potential impacts of the petroleum industry back in May 2011) was released by the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage this week.

Amandala tried to reach Minister of Natural Resources Gaspar Vega via phone to get his feedback on the report, but we were unable to reach him.

Steiner’s 25-page report, Belize’s Oil: Doing it Right, contains numerous recommendations, including a call on the Government of Belize to return to the days when it required an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for petroleum exploration and development.

When the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) took the Musa administration to court over compliance with the laws of Belize in permitting US Capital Energy to proceed with seismic and other exploratory works in Toledo, the legal requirement to have an EIA for such works was revoked.

Last year, the Barrow administration pledged to expand the EIA requirement to exploratory and all forms of drilling offshore, but it had taken the stance that an EIA would not be required for seismic works and exploratory drilling onshore.

Currently, Treaty Energy Corporation, a US-based company which has essentially assumed the production sharing agreement awarded to Princess Petroleum in 2007, has gotten environmental clearance to commence exploratory drilling in southern Belize. The company does not have an approved EIA and is not yet required to have one, according to officials from the Department of Environment with whom we have spoken.

Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria had previously told Amandala that an EIA would be required if exploitable petroleum is found and the company wants to pursue commercial production at the well sites. Alegria said that Treaty is already getting a head start on the EIA, and the company has expressed confidence that there is oil in southern Belize.

In his risk assessment report, Steiner is calling on the Government of Belize to “...return seismic exploration to Schedule 1 of the EPA [Environmental Protection Act], whereby all seismic exploration will require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).” He added, however, that “Aeromagnetic surveys etc. with no on-ground or on-water activity, could remain exempt from this requirement.”

Steiner also suggests to the Government of Belize that, “To the extent that the EIA process does not require such now, the GOB should require completion of a comprehensive Risk Assessment for each oil development project.”

It also calls on the government to require regular independent audits, and asks GOB to “...immediately order an independent compliance audit of existing petroleum facilities in Belize.”

Nearly 20 concessions have been granted across Belize, which cover almost all its territory, including the Belize Barrier Reef and roughly 130 protected areas.

Dr. Steiner also says that Belize should “immediately suspend existing permits and withhold issuance of additional permits/contracts in protected areas or offshore, until the Coalition’s public referendum on the issue is decided.”

In an upshot, he notes that “...there are extensive areas in Belize where oil and gas development can occur with minimum environmental, economic and social risk and impact. The BNE [Belize Natural Energy] development at Spanish Lookout and Never Delay appears to be such an area.”

He added, though, that, “...there are areas where the risks and impacts are too great for oil development to be permitted.”

Steiner points to the unavoidable risk of catastrophic impact.

As our newspaper has previously reported, the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, currently chaired by the Belize Tourism Industry Association, has reported that it has enough signatures to petition a referendum on the question of offshore drilling and drilling in protected areas. Steiner urges the Government to abide by the referendum results.

The Steiner report can be downloaded at www.belizecoalition.org..

“The Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage has forwarded the recommendations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment as well as relevant technical personnel,” a release from the Coalition said.

Amandala