Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria and Director of the Department of Geology and Petroleum Andre Cho say that while they understand concerns over offshore drilling in light of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion, Belize does have a responsibility to balance environmental concerns with its push to develop and utilize its natural resources.
Alegria concedes that Belizeans hold the barrier reef – which some say would be put at needless risk with offshore petroleum exploration – very dear to their hearts. This one asset of national patrimony unites citizens on all fronts, he commented, adding that for the DOE, the scope of concern goes beyond the reef and extends to the threat of marine pollution in general.
“Any project, program or activity that could have an impact must be looked at in the environmental screening process,” said Alegria.
The key monitoring agencies are the DOE and the Department of Geology and Petroleum. For his part, Alegria said that during the screening phase, they would take into account the information from the proponent (the company) along with what they gather from a search of similar proposals around the world, the history they have had, as well as proven environmental impacts.
Asked whether their institutions have enough muscle to properly police the work of these transnational companies who have staked their bet on Belize oil, including the big wigs such as the Republic of China on Taiwan, Sol, and Princess Petroleum, Cho, the Director of the Geology and Petroleum Department, said: “If we can’t do it, if we don’t have the in-house expertise, we will contract international companies.”
The local departments will also have to upgrade their equipment in step with such developments.
Alegria noted that the Government of Belize has recently amended the environmental laws to expand monitoring and enforcement capabilities: companies will have to put forth a performance bond (a sort of surety) and an environmental monitoring fee to assist DOE in meeting costs of doing the necessary work.
The National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) would determine the level of the performance bond and the fee, based on how many millions are invested and the ecological sensitivity of the site, based on a percentage basis.
Cho noted that in Belize, companies would have to go through the process of getting their permits, and they would also have to get environmental clearance before any work happens. During that process, all the contingency plans – including oil spill plans – would have to be presented.
“For any country, its natural resources are there to be used for the development of the country, once it is done in an environmentally sensitive manner,” said Cho. “You have to balance the exploitation of natural resources and environmental protection. That’s the most prudent way in developing your country. It’s not banning offshore exploration or any type of natural resources.”
Alegria did not take a position for or against offshore drilling, but said that during the environmental screening process, the concerns raised would have to be looked at.
In environmental management in Belize, said Alegria, a key component is public hearings. Citizens of Belize – any and everybody – can become part of the decision-making and can make recommendations to the Government on the approval or disapproval of a project proposal.
Activists lament, however, that prior to the issuance of concession parcels, there were no consultations to canvass the opinion of Belizeans on this matter.
The Association of Protected Areas Managers (APAMO), the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA), and Oceana (an international agency) have all called on the Government of Belize to effect a ban on offshore drilling.
The Government has not conceded to such a view.