brad brace contemporary culture scrapbook

April 11, 2006

Tiny Belize strikes bubblin’ crude

Filed under: belize — admin @ 6:18 am

One partner in Belize Natural Energy has said that 75 million barrels could be under a single 1,618-hectare parcel of land.

How sweet it is, some say. But the Beverly Hillbillies-style courting of big oil companies worries others.


This tiny country struck oil in much the same way TV’s Jed Clampett did in the Ozarks. A few years ago, a Mennonite farmer dug a shallow well in this bucolic hamlet and up bubbled crude.

“It was just like the Beverly Hillbillies,” said government petroleum inspector Andre Cho.

Belize joined the ranks of the world’s oil exporters in January when its first shipload of crude hit the market. Production is only 3,000 barrels a day, but people in this Central American nation of 280,000 are getting a glimpse of the opportunities — and opportunists — that accompany $60-a-barrel oil.

“When you see Texans coming down here, you know that something is up,” said Belize City bartender Robert Williams at a restaurant called the Smoky Mermaid. Cho said wildcatters have been tantalized by the speed with which Belize Natural Energy– a small private firm backed by American and Irish investors — last year found the first significant deposits of oil. In contrast to the heavy, sulphur-laden stuff found in neighbouring Guatemala and Mexico, Belizean crude is so sweet and light that some local farmers are putting it raw into tractors.

The strike couldn’t have come at a better time for Belize’s debt-strapped government, which hopes to use oil wealth to reduce taxes and bolster social spending. Minister of Natural Resources John Briceno calculates that at current prices, the government’s take from even modest oil production of around 60,000 barrels a day would cover the entire national budget of Belize.

BNE officials say they don’t know the true size of the find, but one partner told a local newspaper that 75 million barrels could be under a single 1,618-hectare parcel. “If we could produce even 20,000 barrels a day, you can imagine what we could do with that. It could make a huge difference for our little country.”

For half a century, oil drillers came to Belize hoping to hit the big one. Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz spent millions of dollars chasing black gold in this Massachusetts-size nation located southeast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. So did Texaco, Chevron and others. Studies hinted at petroleum deposits lurking beneath the jungle floor, but drilling yielded 50 dry holes in as many years.

Thus BNE made history when it struck oil on its first attempt, 25 kilometres from the spot where the Mennonite farmer first found petroleum.

Two BNE partners were key to the effort — Northern Ireland-born Susan Morrice, the company’s president and a veteran geologist with two decades of experience in Belize, and the late Mike Usher, an engineer and member of a prominent Belizean family who never gave up the dream that his nation could be an oil producer.

Usher’s 89-year-old mother, Jane, recalls her son bringing rocks to Sunday dinner, evidence that Belize was rich in petroleum. He didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled, dying in 2004 of a liver-related ailment, but she never doubted him. “Every Sunday, it was always the same. The oil thing. The oil thing,” said the mother of 10, known as Miss Jane.

With financing from Morrice’s husband, Colorado oil executive Alex Cranberg and more than 80 Irish investors, the firm used seismic technology to map unexplored territory around Spanish Lookout. They found what they believed to be a sizable oilfield under Mennonite pastureland.

The company’s roughnecks hit oil three times in as many tries, naming the wells Mike Usher No. 1, Mike Usher No. 2 and Mike Usher No. 3.

Some Belizeans fear that coaxing the long hidden oil to the surface is equivalent to opening Pandora’s box.

Belize boasts lush rainforests, delicate coral reefs, piercing blue skies and what it claims is the world’s only jaguar preserve.

Because the nation lacks a refinery, pipelines or basic petroleum infrastructure, the oil must be moved by tanker trucks along narrow roads to the docks in the southern city of Big Creek for export. “We simply aren’t prepared,” said Godsman Ellis, president of the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy, who says spills and other disasters are inevitable.

Mennonite farmers on whose land the oil was discovered are also wary.

Concerns about outsiders meddling in their affairs led the conservative Christian group to flee Mexico 45 years ago for Belize. The federal government, which owns all mineral rights in Belize, has the power to force landowners to accept oil drilling on their property for a small share of the oil revenue. Other Belizeans suspect they, too, will be shortchanged.

A block from Belize’s petroleum department in the capital of Belmopan, on the campus of United Evergreen Primary School, principal Pamela Neal hasn’t a single computer for 765 students.

Neal said she would like to believe poor students would benefit from oil riches. But the experience of developing nations such as Nigeria, where multinationals and corrupt officials pocketed most of wealth, have her fearing the worst.

“We are between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

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