Apr 23 2013
Belize is home to the largest coral reef system in the Western hemisphere — the Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches 560 miles, 186 of which lie in Belizean waters. In the past decade the Belizean government secretly leased rights to drill for oil in its reef — including the famous Blue Hole — to local companies with little to no experience in the very complicated and hazardous business of offshore oil drilling. Given the high frequency of oil spills and leaks in offshore drilling operations (which, for example, occur nearly every day in the Gulf of Mexico), the decision to green-light drilling operations in the Belizean Barrier Reef — a habitat central to Belize’s tourism-based economy — led to a fierce national debate in Belize after the secret leases were revealed in the wake of the 2010 Gulf Oil spill. Based on the history of past environmental debates in Belize, it appeared that the government was likely to prevail. But things have now changed in Belize.
In a stunning decision, last week Belize’s Supreme Court struck down the offshore drilling contracts that were issued by the government in 2004 and 2007, declaring them “unlawful, null and void.” The court overturned the contracts after determining that the government failed to assess the environmental impact on Belize’s ocean, as required by law, prior to issuing the contracts. The court also found that contracts were made to companies that did not demonstrate a proven ability to contribute the necessary funds, assets, machinery, equipment, tools and technical expertise to drill safely.
The suit was brought by our organization, Oceana, as well as co-claimants Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage.
With a population of just 350,000, Belize has a small economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and it barrier reef. The World Travel & Tourism Council calculates that in 2011 tourism contributed to 40,000 jobs in Belize, or 30 percent of the country’s total employment. Belize’s barrier reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a destination point for over 60 percent of the tourists visiting Belize. If an oil spill happened in the barrier reef, even one much smaller that the Gulf Oil spill (which was seven times the size of the Belize’s ocean), it would have catastrophic effects on the reef and its future as a tourist destination.