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BNE's Susan Morrice: "Laughing All the Way to the Bank"

[Linked Image] An article appearing in the Belfast Telegraph - a newspaper from Ireland - has been raising eyebrows here in Belize. It's about Belize Natural Energy principal Susan Morrice, who is Irish. The article says, "Irish investors are laughing all the way to the bank after striking black gold in Central America. Hundreds of people from Northern Ireland and the Republic have just received their first payout after taking a gamble on a Belfast-born oil baroness"

That so called "oil baroness" is the description lavished on Morrice, presumably for the fortune she has amassed from harvesting Belizean oil. It goes on, "...investors, who shared a pot of $10m, (and some) received payouts of up to $750,000." The article explains that Morrice privately raised the capital needed to finance the oil exploration at Spanish Lookout from small investors in Ireland. On Christmas Day, those investors got their return on investment and the article portrays it as a windfall.

The article quotes Josh Stewart, an Irish director with Belize Natural Energy (BNE), as saying, "investors who... have invested in this company.... got their first, significant and massive dividend (at Christmas)." The article also provides us with hard news, saying that BNE declared its second oil field last month. This is presumably the much discussed field in Never Delay - which according to Deputy Director of the Department of Geology Craig Moore is still being appraised.

Speaking this afternoon, Moore said that it still has not been confirmed to their Department that the oil field is commercial. Well, not confirmed in Belize but apparently in Belfast that's accepted fact. Moore could not comment on a further claim made directly by Morrice in the article that the Spanish Lookout oil field has 20 million barrels of oil recoverable when previously it was thought to have six million barrels. He referred us to Department Director4 Andre Cho who was out of Office.

The article says that BNE pumps 5,000 barrels of oil per day from 10 wells at Spanish Outlook - and had a gross revenue of $112m in 2008. It ends on the boast made directly by Morrice that BNE has become, "....the number one revenue generator in the whole country in less than three years; it's phenomenal, it's another unheard of thing." With that, the articles candy-coated conclusion is, "so the crude oil in Spanish Lookout has not only made Ms Morrice....a lot of money but it has allowed Belize to dream of energy independence and a better future for this poor nation." It is a bizarre, laughable statement, and one on which we'll reserve comment.

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Mark Espat: Belfast Telegraph Article 'Revolting'

[Linked Image] November 14, 2007 that's when we first reported on an oil find at Never Delay which is outside of Belmopan. An official release at the time said that testing began on October 26th, 2007. After two years of testing, that field was declared commercial on November fifth 2009 - which the Deputy Director of the department of petroleum and geology apparently didn't find out until yesterday, January 13, 2010. And we can say that because on January 12, he told us with certainty that Never Delay was still in the appraisal stage. And then, yesterday, January 13th. he called back to say he was mistaken, it had been declared commercial two month earlier on November fifth, 2009.

We belabor the dates because the official uncertainly over this single, simple fact seems to validate the suspicions of those who feel that the government of Belize has neither the capacity nor the will to properly monitor the extraction of this precious and valuable oil resource. One of those people is PUP Deputy Leader Mark Espat. He has long been regarded as a hawk on oil revenues, criticizing his own government - the Musa Administration - for giving up too much of the oil revenue to Belize Natural Energy and keeping too little for government coffers.

Well now, he's criticizing this government, but more than that he's weighing in on the article in the BELFAST Telegraph. As we reported on Tuesday, that paper reported about the Irish investors in Belize Natural Energy divvying up a return of 10 million dollars. Espat said today the tone of the article was revolting.

Hon. Mark Espat, PUP Deputy Leader

"It is a mockery of Belize and Belizeans for this article to suggest that Belize's oil discovery is somehow contributing to energy independence when last year we would have spent close, if not more than $200 million to import the fuel, the petroleum that you and I put in our cars.

It is a very very serious thing, a very serious development where newspaper in Ireland would be the first to announce an oil discovery rather than the government of Belize, the Petroleum and Geology Department. Two years ago in the budget I made the point that the guardians of our oil, those on the frontlines who are to ensure that we are getting our fair share are people at the Petroleum and Geology Department. Do you know that the salary provisions in this year's budget is actually less than it was in last year's budget for that department? What kind of logic is that? Why are we not doing the kind of capacity and institutional strengthening that we need to ensure that Belize gets its fair share. So I agree completely Jules, it is scandalous, it is unacceptable that it would not be the government of Belize that would first make that announcement.

I believe we are in the middle of what is known internationally as an oil curse. Why do I say that? Since the first export of oil in January of 2006, Belize has exported oil valued at around $700 million. When you look at what government has collected, a best estimate would be that we have collected less than 25 cents on every dollar worth of oil that has been exported. In that period of having exported $700 million of Belizean oil, the poverty rate in this country has actually gone up from a third of the population, 33%, to what will soon be reported to be a level of 43% with an additional 14% of the population vulnerable to poverty.

So there is the curse: on the one hand we have $700 million of wealth, of additional income to the country in the form of oil exports and a 142,000 Belizeans living in poverty with an additional 15,000 or 20,000 at risk. What we need from the government is a clear accounting of how much oil is being pumped. To date it is estimated that around 6 million barrels of oil has been pumped. A clear accounting, each year, this is the value of what was extracted from the ground, Belizean oil, this is the total revenues of the company or companies involved with the extraction, and out of every dollar that is extracted, every dollar of value from our exports, this is how much comes to the coffer of government.

I think 23, 24, 22 cents is outrageous. This is generational robbery that is taking place. This is a non-renewable resource. It is our oil. It is not BNE's oil. Mr. Musa or Mr. Barrow's oil. It is the oil of the Belizean people. Unlike any other resource, when you catch a fish, that would have sons and daughters so there would be fishes tomorrow if we manage it properly. In the case of each barrel of oil, once that barrel of oil is extracted it will not come back tomorrow and that is why I am saying that if we are not getting value, if we are not getting our fair share then it is generational theft. We are stealing from future generations of Belizeans."

Jules Vasquez,

"The government that you were a part of had a chance to do it. It is your former Prime Minister Said Musa who said the tax structure or the amended tax structure he proposed would get 50 cents out of every one dollar earned. It failed to do that obviously so speaking prospectively but retrospectively you have to accept that the government you were a part of is a large part of this problem."

Hon. Mark Espat,

"Jules the Belizean people voted on that. They voted on that two years ago. The driver right now at the wheel of state is the Prime Minister, the Hon. Dean Barrow and the government of the UDP. The people voted on the 2006/2008 record and clearly the people agreed with what you just concluded."

Jules Vasquez,

"While you've said yes they voted on that, really Mr. Espat that is an easy out. You had a moral responsibility if you felt it was wrong to speak up then as you are doing now and you chose not to."

Hon. Mark Espat,

"I am sorry Jules, perhaps you should review your footage. I believe that you covered remarks that I made, including the remarks that I referred to earlier where I called for publicly, as a member of the Cabinet, not just getting 70 cents on the dollar but I called for a transparent petroleum fund, I called for the proper share of these oil receipts being invested in the Belizean people to improve health and education and national security and so on. This position is not a new one for me. You are asking me to implicate the former government and I believe the voters of Belize did that on February 7th 2008. We have to stop looking back. At some point we have to say this is where we are, what are we going to do about it. The government of Belize has the obligation to get every single penny of that oil wealth that is due to the people of Belize.

When I read the article I certainly did not feel that the picture painted is any thing close to reality on the ground in Belize. For example the article suggested $100,000 has been spent on schools and other benefits to the community. I am sure more has been spent. The fact is that looking at the value of exports of close to $700 million. For every cent that we did not get, that is $7 million. So if we got ten cents more we would on the dollar of that $700 million, we would have gotten $70 million. $70 million is what the government spends in an entire year on capital II expenditure.

We are now in year 5 of the great oil era in Belize and then yet tens of million of dollars that should be coming to the country are going elsewhere. It is for that reason that I and I am sure many others found the article revolting actually."

And while government has belatedly confirmed a commercial find at Never Delay, there has been no comment on the claim made in the Belfast Telegraph that there are 20 million barrels recoverable from the Spanish Lookout Oil Field. Reports are that BNE is also pursuing oil exploration in Calla Creek and Barton Creek in the Cayo District.

Live and let live

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