The government of Belize is considering new regulations that would allow offshore drilling in 99% of its territorial waters, a move which environmental groups say would threaten the second-largest coral reef in the world.
The draft regulations would allow companies to undertake offshore exploration for oil and gas near the Great Blue Hole, an astonishing submarine sinkhole that was named a Unesco world heritage site in 1996. The 124-metre sinkhole is visible from space, and was named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the world’s top 10 dive destinations.
“They’ve declared open season on almost 99% of Belize’s marine area,” Janelle Chanona, of the US activist group Oceana, told the Associated Press. “That includes seven world heritage sites, that includes marine protected areas … and it is unacceptable.”
Following a 2013 ruling by the Belize supreme court, all licences and contracts related to offshore drilling in Belizean waters were thrown out, due to fears over safety standards and unsatisfactory environmental provisions.
The judge responsible for the ruling expressed concern that some companies awarded drilling contracts by the Belizean government had insufficient experience in the field of drilling and exploration – which could increase the risk of accident.
One company involved had a background in hotel and resort development rather than fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
Environmentalists have warned that even exploratory oil wells can disrupt fragile reef ecosystems, while the smallest oil spill could could have a devastating environmental impact.
According to a report released by the Belizean government, tourism accounts for half of the overall Belizean economy. Compromising its natural tourist attractions would undoubtedly put a vast proportion of its economy – and corresponding jobs – at risk.
Belize’s recent history when it comes to the preservation of its most important world heritage attractions is not unflawed.
In 2013, one of the country’s largest Mayan temples was almost entirely destroyed by road construction crews, who had been bulldozing it for gravel.
The government has stressed the potential economic benefits of oil or gas extraction, but a government document released earlier this year appeared to suggest there could also be environmental benefits.
A document, entitled Offshore Drilling: Potential Benefits and Risks, suggested that offshore rigs act as a form of artificial reef and as a result can actually increase marine life around their operations “fiftyfold”.
But Chanona argued that any move to open up Belize’s water to offshore drilling would make no environmental or economic sense. In a 2012 “people’s referendum” organised by Oceana, almost 96% of 30,000 participants voted against offshore exploration and drilling. (Belize’s population is approximately 350,000.)
“And still there is this seeming intention to drill, baby, drill,” she said.
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