Climate

Famous Coral Reef System In Belize Could Soon Be The Site Of Oil Drilling

CREDIT: via Shutterstock

Belize's waters are pretty much perfect the way they are.

A World Heritage Site could turn into an oil drilling site, if plans to allow oil exploration off the coast of Belize go through.

A proposal from the Belize Ministry of Energy provides guidelines for oil exploration — and drilling, if oil is found — across most of the country’s land and water, including along the Belize Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse environments. Oceana Belize, an environmental advocacy group, has launched a campaign to halt oil exploration and to get more information from the government about the plan and what went into creating it.

“The general consensus we’re getting from Belizeans is… ‘Didn’t we already decide not to do this? Why is this still an issue?'” Janelle Chanona, a spokesperson for Oceana Belize, told ThinkProgress.

Two years ago, the Belize Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Oceana suit to halt offshore oil exploration. Subsequently, though, the injunction was suspended, and two companies, including Princess Petroleum, continue to have exploration rights.

According to documents submitted by Belize to UNESCO, the original concession included exploration rights at Great Blue Hole, a renowned underwater sinkhole, but Princess Petroleum voluntarily gave rights to that area up. If oil is not found, the current rights will expire in October 2015, which may be why the government is pursuing a new path to concessions.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System — made up of mangrove forests, tiny islands, and the famous Blue Hole Natural Monument — is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and as “one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere.”

The proposed zones for oil exploration place two onshore areas of Belize completely off-limits, and the barrier reef falls mostly into the second-most stringent category. But as little as five kilometers (about 3.1 miles) from the reef, the map shows the “lowest categorization” of restrictions.

“There’s no major difference between zones two, three, and four,” Chanona said.

Red areas would be prohibited from oil exploration. The barrier reef appears mostly under the yellow, zone 2, designation.

Red areas would be prohibited from oil exploration. The barrier reef appears mostly under the yellow, zone 2, designation.

CREDIT: From the State of Conservation Report — Belize’s World Heritage Site, submitted to UNESCO in April 2015

A presentation prepared by a government consultant provided to ThinkProgress by Oceana, titled “Offshore Drilling Benefits and Risks,” states, “The literature reviewed presents no deleterious effects on coral reefs either in the presence or absence of oil spills. Available research results also indicate that corals are robust as regards discharge of drill cuttings.”

In another section, the presentation states, “The potential environmental risk should not be allowed to prevent Belize from continuing to increase standards of living and reap similar rewards [to other countries with offshore drilling].”

The presentation was prepared by Carla Suite Wright, an engineer with BP Trinidad and Tobago, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Economic benefits of drilling are a key reason Belize should allow oil exploration, according to Wright’s presentation, but there is a flip side to that argument. Opponents cite Belize’s tremendous economic dependence on its coastline.

A tiny nation of fewer than 350,000 people, Belize is tucked at the southeastern edge of Mexico, sandwiched between Guatamala and the Caribbean. Tourism makes up 40 percent of the country’s GDP, and an estimated 60 percent of Belize’s tourists participate in marine activities. Coral reef- and mangrove-associated tourism was responsible for an estimated $150 million to $196 million in 2007.

“The Belize Barrier Reef system provides hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and guaranteed economic benefits via tourism, fishing and storm surge protection. Those hundreds of millions of dollars cannot be dismissed in favor of the mere ‘potential’ of anything else — especially something as dangerous and dirty as offshore oil,” Oceana said in a press release.

“Even if you don’t meet with us, these are public resources — you should be meeting with the public,” Chanona said. Her group filed a formal request for documents related to the proposed exploration guidelines, but the Ministry of Energy did not respond. The request is currently with the national ombudsman, she said.

In fact, the proposal seems to be at odds even with the Ministry’s stated mission, which is “To plan, promote and effectively manage the production, delivery and use of energy through Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and Cleaner Production interventions.”

UNESCO notes that offshore oil development is a key threat to the reef system.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded and sank in 2010, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was located 40 miles off the cost of Louisiana. Four years after the spill, mangrove forests were dead and the coastline was eroding. A similar oil spill off Belize — or even a much smaller spill — could be devastating to Belize’s fragile reef system.

Representatives for the Ministry of Energy did not immediately respond to calls or emails Monday.