Offshore oil operations in Belize?

Martin Mowforth

December 2022

Oceana is an international organisation founded in 2001. It is the largest international advocacy organisation focussed solely on ocean conservation. It campaigns against offshore oil operations, plastics pollution of the oceans, and the use of gillnets and bottom trawling by the fishing industry.

The organisation has an office in Belize and in 2015 it was instrumental in persuading the government of Belize to provide protections for its barrier reef and World Heritage Sites from oil exploration. This was reaffirmed in 2017 when the government passed the Petroleum Operations (Offshore Zone Moratorium) Bill, placing an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil in the country’s marine territory. The Bill is often referred to as a Blue Bond Agreement.

The moratorium is still valid but can be reversed at any time as the language used in the Bill does not explicitly rule out oil exploration. In November [2022] Oceana called a press conference to alert the country to the wish of Prime Minister John Briceño to allow seismic testing which is generally seen as the first step in the process towards offshore oil exploration.

At the press conference, Janelle Chanona, Vice President of Oceana Belize, explained that in a meeting two months earlier Briceño had stated that he wished to proceed with seismic testing. Despite the global praise that Belize had gained for its signing up to the Blue Bond Agreement and its fight against climate change, Chanona pointed out the hypocrisy of now wanting to approve seismic testing.

“We can’t fight climate change and then turn around in the other breath and say but we want to contribute to it by engaging in offshore oil development,” said Chanona. Because of the alarm created by this current governmental position Oceana announced at its press conference that it was launching a petition in order to trigger a referendum on the issue. A petition of ten per cent of the population is required to trigger a referendum in Belize.

The government responded to the Oceana press conference with a statement that included the following: “the government of Belize hereby clarifies that it has not entered into any agreements for seismic studies nor for oil exploration in offshore areas.” In early December Prime Minister Briceño wrote to Oceana Belize reiterating the government’s position and support for the prohibition of offshore oil operations. He also declared the Oceana inspired referendum to be unnecessary and requested that the organisation re-engage with the government to tackle the “many marine conservation challenges that require collaborative action now.”