Offshore seismic survey officially cancelled; multi-beam testing still on the table

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

On Monday, November 17th, the Government of Belize (GOB) officially announced the cancellation of regional offshore seismic survey on Belizean waters. The survey, which was already in progress, was suspended on October 19th following public outcry from tourism stakeholders on Ambergris Caye and the Non-Government Organization community. However, in the official document from GOB, there was no mention about the multi-beam survey, which apparently might still happen in mid- November.
When word got out on the clandestine approval for multi-beam and seismic testing in Cabinet, locals and visitors of Ambergris Caye were enraged. Island residents then became aware that two vessels, MV Northern Explorer and MV Campeche, had started seismic testing. The rapid movement by Oceana in Belize and other environmental organizations began mobilizing the community, educating them on the harm that such surveys could cause to the natural resources around Ambergris Caye. With the support of all residents, including from Caye Caulker and other coastal areas of Belize, GOB was forced to suspend the testing that same day.

Northern Explorer conducting Seismic Survey in Belizean

Northern Explorer conducting Seismic Survey in Belizean

At the time the tests were postponed, GOB claimed intentions to have them approved after proper consultations were conducted. In the meantime, the ships left Belize while a public consultation was being organized. But the main reason why they left and the survey called off was solely influenced by the ship company. They informed GOB that they would be at a great loss to keep the ships out at sea while the consultations were organized. The cost to the company would have been $60,000 a day, which would have also surpassed the $1.8 million budget for the entire scope of work.
The Government, via a press release, pointed out their stance regarding the issue is an attempt to sensitize the general public. “Public Consultations on the seismic survey, as initially proposed, will not be conducted. If in the future, such an opportunity were to arise, the Ministry will continue to ensure that all legal requirements are followed and that the appropriate levels of consultations are held with stakeholders.”
The cancellation of the offshore seismic tests does not completely eliminate the danger for our country’s marine natural resources. According to information from the Geology Department at the Ministry of Economic Development and Petroleum, a multi-beam survey is still on the table. Department Director Andre Cho told local media that they are waiting for a decision from GOB on the multi-beam survey. He further stated that a ship to conduct the test is scheduled to arrive in Belize on Friday, November 11th. At this near possibility of these vessels returning to Belizean waters to conduct more tests, Oceana in Belize contacted the Ministry on Wednesday, November 9th. They urged them to post-pone the scheduled arrivals of the ships and emphasized the need to first fully engage the Belizean public on the topic. In a response addressed to Oceana from that Ministry, they claimed that GOB has informed the company to postpone the survey until proper consultations are carried out.
However, Oceana in Belize believes that the Government has declined to safeguard Belize’s marine and coastal resources from the threat of offshore oil through legislation. Oceana claims that a letter was sent to a member of the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage which revealed GOB’s intentions to not legislate a position on the offshore oil moratorium. On a post in their Facebook page, they reiterated the need for legislation on the moratorium because according to them, the policy referenced in the letter is not even a written document and given that policies can change with little or no notice.
On a separate but related note, the Coalition urges UNESCO to call Government to justify, on a scientific basis, the one kilometre buffer on the World Heritage Sites and the Belize Barrier Reef. The Coalition continues to stress that despite GOB announcing its promised ban in December 2015, they have even failed to formalize this decision by legislation. The note ends by stating that Oceana in Belize and the Coalition will ensure that the petroleum industry is governed by stringent laws and transparent policies that rely on the best available science to guide Belize’s development.
In the meantime, environmental organizations across the country will continue monitoring the situation which may have new developments in the upcoming weeks. With the topic not fully off the agenda, a final decision is still pending whether or not to continue oil explorations in Belizean waters. On the other hand, the promise from Government expressed in their press release ensuring the responsible and environmental development of the petroleum sector is still not convincing many people. At the end of the day, it is the Belizean people who will have the final word when and whenever a national consultation takes place.

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