The Government of Belize has announced its intention to impose a permanent ban on offshore oil exploration along the Belizean barrier reef system and within the country's seven world heritage sites.  The Belizean barrier reef is the largest section of the MesoAmerican barrier reef, the biggest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and home to some of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on the planet.  The government’s announcement is a big step forward for the people of Belize, Oceana and ocean advocates everywhere.

Oceana’s Belizean team has been campaigning to ban offshore oil drilling in Belize’s ocean since we and our allies discovered in 2010 that massive oil exploration concessions had been granted throughout Belizean waters – including in its marine reserves, natural monuments and national parks. Having seen the devastating effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, however, Belizeans knew that even one accident could destroy this fragile marine ecosystem. Belize’s oceans provide jobs, food and cultural identity for its citizens, making protection of these areas a top priority.

Oceana, along with other Belizean organizations, successfully won judgments from Belizean courts that the permits issued by the government that allowed drilling violated Belizean environmental law. This judgment led to an initial moratorium on offshore drilling. In addition, working with other organizations in the country, Oceana’s team founded the Belize Coalition to Save Our National Heritage in December 2011. This coalition, which began with seven member organizations and grew to include 40 different groups, ultimately delivered more than 18,000 signatures to the Governor General's office calling for a referendum on offshore oil drilling and exploration. When just enough signatures were disqualified to prevent triggering an official referendum, the Coalition organized a national referendum of its own called "The People's Referendum." This initiative gave Belizeans an opportunity to vote on the issue, and they responded overwhelmingly. Approximately 30,000 Belizeans participated – with more than 95% voting against offshore oil activity.

From legal, economic, scientific and cultural perspectives, Belizeans agree offshore oil is a bad idea. We remain confident that the future will continue to reveal reasons why Belizeans should never risk our outstanding and globally unique resources with this type of activity. “This progress should be seen as a major accomplishment by and for the people of Belize,” says Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Janelle Chanona.  

Oceana looks forward to reviewing the details of the Barrow administration’s plans, especially as it relates to the status of two marine protected areas not named in the release: the Turneffe Marine Reserve and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Furthermore, as clarified by Prime Minister Dean Barrow via telephone today, Oceana looks forward to contributing towards of the efforts of the Ministry of Petroleum’s mandate to create stringent environmental mechanisms and strengthen existing frameworks to ensure that if the moratorium is ever lifted, Belize’s marine resources will be protected.  

In June 2015, Oceana suggested several conditions for consideration before the moratorium is lifted to the Government of Belize. They include the development of a comprehensive oil spill response plan, inclusive of adequate funds for implementation; a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment of petroleum operations in Belize’s territorial waters; revision of the Petroleum Regulations to include detailed requirements regarding the qualification of companies seeking to conduct offshore petroleum operations and the safety measures that must be taken during those operations; the creation of a common fund which offshore petroleum operations would contribute to and which would be held in trust and managed for the sole purpose of mitigating environmental damages caused during offshore petroleum operations; the appointment of an Environmental Pollution Control Board which would be charged to ensure compliance with the requirements of environmental standards and the relevant laws of Belize; amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations to include all offshore petroleum operations, including seismic testing, to the list of activities that require EIAs; an independently conducted cost benefit analysis of offshore oil development to Belize to determine if overall benefits substantially outweigh costs, and last but not least, that the people of Belize have approved lifting the moratorium via a referendum conducted pursuant to the Referendum Act.

Oceana takes this opportunity to thank the tens of thousands of Belizeans who continue to support the common cause of protecting our marine resources. Belizeans must remain active and proactive in this process. That is the only we can determine the future of the people and places that make us who we are.