The topic of oil is once again prominent in our everyday discourse as hopes grow high for new oil strikes by new oil companies. There were two big stories in the news this past week about this precious and coveted Black Gold. First, there is the story of a huge oil rig that has landed; so big it will take sixty containers to haul it to its destination. That destination is northern Belize, more specifically, the Blue Creek area. Apparently, though hitherto unbeknownst to Belizeans, seismic testing has already been done and drilling of up to eight thousand feet down is about to commence.
Blue Creek is a rich agricultural area inhabited mostly by Mennonite families. Should oil be discovered in Blue Creek, it would be very interesting that both oil strikes in Belize would have been on land occupied by Mennonites. Comprising a mere 3 % of the population and arriving in Belize as recent as 1958, the Mennonites seems to have been lucky enough to pick the exact areas where the oil lies to settle. Coincidence….?
The major concern for Belize should be the damage to arable land and adverse effect on the environment and health of our people that will result from testing, drilling and especially from the extracting of oil. One need only check with the people of Ecuador and Nigeria about what has happened to their respective lands. In Ecuador, thirty thousand residents had to file a lawsuit against Texaco/Chevron which they fought for twenty years before the case was finally settled. The charge was that the oil company deliberately dumped over 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and spilled some 17 million gallons of crude oil into the rivers and onto the floor of their precious rainforest.
The Ecuadoreans were able to prove that apart from damage to the environment, the pollution from the oil business had caused a wave of mouth, stomach and uterine cancer that caused thousands of deaths, birth defects and spontaneous miscarriages. In February of 2011, a court found the oil company guilty and ordered them to pay 18 billion in compensation. Despite declaring profits in excess of 21 billion for 2011 alone, Chevron has refused to pay or to even apologize to the people of Ecuador.
In Nigeria, the situation is even more disastrous and distressing. The Shell oil company, which recorded even higher profits of 31 billion dollars for 2011, continues to rape that country and create hardship for the millions of Africans who depend on the environment for their livelihood. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled into the Niger Delta ecosystem over the years. Many spills take place in sensitive habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife, leading to further loss of biodiversity and, in turn, increased hardship on local communities. The spills pollute local water sources upon which people depend for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing and fishing. Nigeria has what has been described as “one of the world’s most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems.” The saddest part about the whole Nigeria situation is that while it continues to be one of the world’s largest oil producers, creating enormous wealth for Shell and a few corrupt politicians, over 70% of Nigeria’s people live in abject poverty. Is this really what we have to look forward to Belize?
Belize is at the moment facing huge financial difficulties and the Prime Minister has made it clear that our only saving grace will be the discovery of more oil. Mr. Barrow has long stated that nothing will stop the search for oil and in referring to oil companies has said, that “drill they will”. Public protest has so far been able to delay drilling offshore but as things get more precarious, you can bet that oil companies will soon have their way wherever they want.
The next big oil story last week was about the arrival of a tanker full of fuel from Venezuela. We are told of course, that this will make no difference in the price of gasoline at the pump but will only add to our national debt. It is forecasted that gasoline will go even higher than the existing thirteen dollars per gallon at the pump. According to the PetroCaribe agreement, the government will pay anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the fuel cost and owe the rest to be paid over a number of years. The savings however, cannot go toward lowering gas prices but goes to the government for supposedly poverty alleviation projects. We know what usually happens to money that goes into hands of this government!
Of course, we have seen this certain jankunu dance before. In November of 2005, a similar tanker carrying 15,000 barrels of fuel had been sent from Venezuela but had to sit in the harbor for over a week because government had nowhere to store the oil. At the time Esso owned all the storage facilities but now we are told that Esso has sold out to Puma who seems more flexible in dealing with Venezuela. Yet, oil companies play rough and it is left to be seen just how this one will play out. And by the way, whatever happened to that oil refinery that Mr. Barrow was gonna build “in no more than the time that it will take to do it”? Do people still believe anything that this man says?
The thing is that regardless of how many ship loads of fuel arrive from Venezuela or anywhere else, Belizeans will still have to pay through their nose for gas. And even if our giant new oil rig finds oil in Blue Creek, it will be years, if ever, that Belizeans will see any benefit. You can be sure that we will see the detriments rather immediately. Maybe we can learn from a letter written by a youth organization in Nigeria that reads: “Our rivers, rivulets and creeks are all covered with crude oil. We no longer breathe the natural oxygen, rather we inhale lethal and ghastly gases. Our water can no longer be drunk unless one wants to test the effect of crude oil on the body. We no longer use vegetables, they are all polluted.”
Oil means money, lots of it but it also poses huge environmental problems. Most of the money also goes to the foreign oil barons and corrupt local politicians. Our current leaders have already shown their propensity for greed, corruption and blatant disregard of the rights and well being of our people. Let us think hard on this one Belize before we find ourselves in a very deep hole covered in goo.
G. Michael Reid
Citizen of the world