In the closing days of 2017, as the Trump administration drafted a proposal to open most U.S. waters to oil and gas development, the legislature of Belize unanimously approved a bill to ban future offshore exploration.
Belize has the biggest barrier reef in the Americas, and its economy relies heavily on the tourists who come to visit its natural attractions. Tourism generates about $200 million a year for Belize, or nearly three times the current value of its national oil production. Concerns about pollution and the resulting risks to the marine environment – and the marine economy – prompted a public campaign for a ban on offshore exploration. International environmental groups contributed as well, organizing petition drives to urge the Belizean government to enact a permanent ban.
It is not the first time that Belize has forbidden offshore oil and gas activity. In 2013, after the Deepwater Horizon spill raised concerns about the potential for environmental harm from drilling, the Belize Supreme Court banned offshore exploration due to safety and environmental concerns. The judge who issued the decision was especially concerned about a lack of experience among some of the local companies interested in the industry. The injunction was later suspended, and in 2015, the Belizean government drafted new guidelines that would have made most of the nation’s waters available for energy development.
However, even seismic exploration faced difficulties from strong local opposition. In October 2016, the government suspended an ongoing seismic campaign off Belize’s barrier reefs following an outcry over potential environmental and economic impacts. “Offshore seismic testing can considerably impact the ecology and marine life thereby having detrimental effects on our thriving travel industry,” argued Osmany Salas, president of the Belize Tourism Industry Association. “We should not jeopardize our vulnerable natural resources and beloved tourist attractions that are the very heart of our tourism industry.