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It’s now law! Referendum required to lift moratorium on offshore oil exploration

HeadlineIt’s now law! Referendum required to lift moratorium on offshore oil exploration

Photo: Janelle Chanona

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Nov. 13, 2023

After years of lobbying, including garnering signatures from over twenty-two thousand Belizeans, Oceana has finally succeeded in getting the Government of Belize to formally pass the People’s Referendum on Offshore Oil amendment bill in Belize into law, thus ensuring that it is mandatory for a referendum to be conducted prior to any offshore oil exploration efforts in the country.

It’s a major win for Oceana, and in the aftermath of the landmark amendment, Oceana’s Vice President, Janelle Chanona, told Amandala, “There was no requirement for a referendum before, but because of people power, there is one now.”

Chanona also pointed to what she refers to as the consistent action of the Belizean people who have been requesting a referendum since 2011, and even those who recently participated in the 2022 petition. She said that the amendment is a direct response to the collective voices of 22,090 Belizean voters who called for legislative amendments that would require a referendum should the government even consider lifting the moratorium on offshore oil exploration.

Chanona also commended the Briceño administration for yielding to the voices of the people who called for the protection of one of the country’s most precious resources, “the Caribbean Sea”, stating that she hopes the exemplary achievement would serve as an example to the rest of the world.

Prime Minister John Briceño also commented that his administration remains resolute in their commitment to safeguarding the country’s natural heritage, and he noted that, as a result of the passing of the amendment into law, any change to the existing prohibition of offshore petroleum operations will only happen with the overwhelming support of Belizeans through a national referendum.

For context, the Referendum Amendment Bill of 2023 was passed through all three stages of the National Assembly and on November 9 it was assented to by the Governor General of Belize, Her Excellency Dame Froyla Tzalam, and later published in the Gazette on November 11, 2023, solidifying it into law.

According to a press release from the Government, the amendment expands the circumstances in which a referendum must be held to include any proposed amendment or repeal, whether expressed or implied, of the Petroleum Operations (Maritime Zone Moratorium) Act or to any proposed legislation related to the conducting of petroleum operations within the limits of the maritime zone of Belize.

In August 2017 the Dean Barrow administration, following extensive consultation with Oceana and other stakeholders, moved to institute an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil exploration and drilling in Belize’s maritime waters.

The push for a moratorium to ban offshore oil exploration in Belize dates back to February 2010 when a map purportedly from the Geology and Petroleum Department surfaced showing that massive oil exploration concessions had been granted throughout the country of Belize, inclusive of the marine reserves and national parks.

This caused major pushback from the public, leading a group calling themselves the Belize Coalition to Save our National Heritage, through Oceana, to trigger a referendum on oil exploration by delivering 18,000 signatures to the Governor General of Belize in December 2011.

This then resulted in 30,000 Belizeans casting their votes at polling stations across the country to express their view on offshore oil exploration. This was done in February 2012 and resulted in 96% of persons polled saying a resounding “no” to offshore oil exploration. Three years later, in May 2015, the Government of Belize withdrew its appeal against a previous ruling in the courts, that oil concessions in Belize at the time were null and void.

By December 2015 the Government of Belize by way of a press release announced that it had permanently banned offshore oil exploration near the Belize Barrier Reef. In August 2017 the Government further announced its plans to legislate an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil exploration and later follow up with legislation by October 2017.

However, that follow-up legislation was never put into place, and when exploratory seismic mapping was being considered by the new Briceño administration only to ascertain the potential in our maritime areas, Oceana launched the above-mentioned initiative to pressure government to pass the amendment restricting all offshore oil exploration of any sort unless approved through a national referendum.

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