The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage—a mounting movement lobbying the government to ban petroleum exploration offshore Belize and inside protected areas—is gearing up to stage a press conference on Tuesday morning, following a signal from Prime Minister Dean Barrow that drilling would proceed in Toledo in a concession area that includes the Sarstoon Temash National Park.
“What is not clearly spelt in law is not prohibited,” Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria told Amandala Monday. He said that the approval granted to US Capital Energy to shoot seismic tests in the area also covered exploration wells as a part of the first Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process dating back about 4 years. He added that the Forest Department, which is responsible for the onshore protected areas, has no issue, as far as he knows.
At the time when the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) took the matter to court, an EIA was mandatory, but after SATIIM—headed by executive director Greg Ch’oc and represented by the now Prime Minister Dean Barrow—took the matter to court, the then administration amended the laws so that an EIA would not be mandatory at the exploration stage.
According to Alegria, the government is now in the process of amending the EIA regulations to require an assessment even for exploration and seismic wells offshore Belize—but not for what he described as non-intrusive seismic scans and satellite imaging.
The Coalition—formed in 2010 in response to concerns over the blanket parceling of petroleum concessions across Belize’s entire territory—has maintained its stance, as it continues to call on the Government of Belize to ban offshore petroleum exploration, as well as drilling in protected areas.
The Chief Environmental Officer told Amandala that if petroleum prospects are deemed to be good when exploration wells are dug, then the well has to be capped before an appraisal is done of the site to estimate the amount of oil at the location.
The new wave of dispute follows a press report on January 7, 2011, in which Prime Minister Dean Barrow is quoted as saying: “if they [US Capital Energy] say they are ready to drill they will be allowed to drill.”
He also told the press that, “Everything is coming up roses in terms of seismic [testing] that has been shot [in the Toledo concession area.]”
Barrow signaled that the matter of drilling in the protected area has gone to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Awich and it has been cleared by the court. Drilling will be permitted, he said.
“I am shocked that you would make such inaccurate statements about the Supreme Court ruling,” Ch’oc responded to Barrow via a subsequent open letter to the media.
“As former lead council for SATIIM,” he added, “you shouldn’t have to be reminded of the 2006 Supreme Court decision regarding SATIIM v the Government of Belize. That case was specific to the seismic testing aspect of oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park (STNP). You said so yourself...”
Ch’oc said that the court had quashed the permission of the Forest Department, because it required an EIA.
“It is not a done deal, Mr. Prime Minister!” Choc asserted.
The Association of Protected Areas Managers (APAMO), which, like SATIIM, is a member of the Coalition, issued a statement last week supporting its member organization: “APAMO strongly believes that as a country we need to have areas that are off limits to oil exploration and production—and protected areas should be one of such areas.”
The Coalition had also recently weighed in on the matter, expressing the view that petroleum exploration brings minimal economic benefits to Belizeans—benefits which do not in any way compensate for the high risk of an oil spill. It made the point that accidents can happen during the exploration phase as well. It furthermore urged the Prime Minister to ban petroleum exploration in protected areas and cancel existing contracts.
APAMO says that protected areas should not be gambled with for the sake of “potential” revenues from oil.
“APAMO considers that oil drilling and production inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park is not in line with the objectives of our protected areas legislation. Furthermore, the Government has failed to develop a policy dealing with protected areas and oil exploration in order to protect the country’s precious resources,” said the organization’s statement.
It recommends that Government should be working towards creative mechanisms used by countries like Ecuador, who are negotiating with the international community to have donors pay countries the value of the oil, so that it is not extracted.
“This could mean greater benefits for the people, as there would be no need to pay the oil companies anything; the funds would all be for the country and its people to benefit from,” APAMO elaborated.
APAMO also argued that, “Any oil drilling and production in this area will not only affect this important area but [the] impacts will eventually reach our Barrier Reef....”
US Capital, a US-based company headed by Brian E. Richter in Colorado, does business in Belize and Guatemala.