Oceana has scored a major victory in its battle to preserve the Barrier Reef. There have been about seventeen companies which have been granted concessions to explore for oil on land as well as deep in our terrestrial waters. But today the N.G.O. announced that the second largest holder of a concession has backed off and relinquished its claim to drill in over a million acres of sea that spans the length of the country. According to Audrey Matura Shepherd, Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, OPIC, the Taiwanese state owned company has voluntarily released its block of one point one million acres since October.
Audrey Matura Shepherd, V.P. Oceana Belize
“That is very good news that OPIC would say look we are stepping out of this game. And our understand is through certain channels and sources that two main reasons. One being; after they looked at the seismic and all the data and heavy study that had been done previously and did the desk work, because you can look at previous seismic and could tell what are your chances, they don’t believe there is oil there, and if there is even, it is not worth the investment, it might be just something small. And two, apparently when they got into the agreements with governments in 2006 and then 2009, there were of the view and understanding that there is no opposition to the issue in Belize. And as such, they like that because they don’t want as a state owned oil company to come into another country that there would be this controversy that can affect relationships between the two countries. And so in 2006, there were told that there was no opposition and that don’t worry, you can go ahead. Of course, a lot has changed since 2006, because people from the embassy have been seeing our local presentations through the news and different medium and they know that the people are aware about the issue. We don’t want offshore drilling in our waters. And especially if you look at that map, you will see that they had a substantial portion from Belize City down to Dangriga and it stretched the entire barrier system there. So now that’s being released and I think that’s good.”
“This is clearly a victory for Oceana, environmentalists and people who care about the reef itself, but throughout this entire time, we were all under the impression that OPIC still had that million plus body of water. What is the significance now of this information coming out?”
Audrey Matura Shepherd
“Well it serves a major problem for the government if we believe what the government has been saying. Remember the Prime Minister has said in several interview some of them with yourself that yes we may be calling for these contracts to be made null and void but they wouldn’t go and do that because they would suffer serious legal repercussions because imagine if we break these contracts—this is not a B.T.L. situation and so we will honor these contracts because these are valid contracts. And so now with OPIC gone, without the contract being withdrawn from them or nullified, they had left. So this means that the Prime Minister doesn’t have to worry that OPIC will sue them because OPIC left on their own. And it means the second thing, what we’ve been saying is, do not give out the area, do not reissue. If they feel that there is a need to really comprehensively study the aspects of offshore drilling in Belize, it has to be, we would strongly recommend after the referendum. What we are saying through the petition drive we have is that Belizeans should be given an opportunity to vote on the issue—to say yes we want offshore drilling or no we don’t want offshore drilling. Now we in good faith, if the government is really talking to us in good faith, they would say this area is free and we will not do anything with it until we hear from the people.”
Matura Shepherd says OCEANA is calling for a referendum on the issue. OCEANA has sent a letter to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and has also sent letters to key personnel in related ministries. The letter calls for a dialogue instead of any new issuances of contract for the area once parceled off to OPIC.