BELIZE CITY, Belize, April 18, 2013 (ENS) – In a case brought by environment groups, Belize’s Supreme Court has declared offshore oil drilling contracts issued by the Government of Belize in 2004 and 2007 null and void.

The ruling halts the Belizean government’s immediate effort to allow offshore oil drilling in the Meso American Reef, the world’s second largest barrier reef.

The ruling by Justice Oswell Legall was in response to a case brought by Oceana, Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action, COLA, and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage.

Blue Hole

One of Jacques Cousteau’s top 10 scuba sites, Belize’s Blue Hole was scheduled for oil drilling. (Photo by USGS)

The court overturned the contracts after determining that the government failed to assess the environmental impact of drilling for oil on Belize’s ocean, as required by law, before 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.

Oceana has campaigned against offshore drilling in Belize for more than two years. In 2011, after collecting the 20,000+ signatures required to trigger a national referendum that would allow the public to vote on whether or not to allow offshore oil drilling in Belize’s reef, the government disqualified over 8,000 of these signatures on the basis of poor penmanship, stopping the vote.

Oceana responded by helping to organize the nation’s first ever “People’s Referendum” on February 29, 2012 in which 29,235 people – out of Belize’s population of 350,000 – came from all over the country to cast their votes.

The target for the People’s Referendum was at least 10 percent of the registered voters and that target was exceeded, said the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage.

The Coalition was formed in response to the April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which heightened the growing concern for the proposed oil exploration in Belize’s offshore and protected areas.

The Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage morphed from individual outrage and concern over the level of oil exploration concessions granted throughout the country into one collective voice representing over 40 organizations and individuals.

The Coalition launched a petition drive to call for a Referendum to have Belizeans vote on whether or not there should be oil exploration in Belize’s offshore and protected areas.

In the resulting People’s Referendum, an overwhelming 96 percent voted against offshore exploration and drilling.

The government almost lost its majority in the national election that followed these votes.

Oceana is fighting for a complete ban on offshore drilling in Belize and believes the Government of Belize should allow the people to express their opinion in an official referendum.

“This is a great day for the people and country of Belize and its democratic process and it shows that we, as ordinary citizens, need not sit back and only complain about all the wrong decisions our Government makes, but that we can use the Judiciary system to settle them,” said Audrey Matura-Shepherd, vice president of Oceana in Belize.

Oceana has long voiced its concern about the potentially devastating impact of an oil spill on Belize’s reef and its economy, which depends heavily on tourism and the barrier reef.

“The companies were granted the oil concessions in secret,” says the oceans advocacy group founded in 2001 by actor Ted Danson and based in the United States. Now global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe.

Princess Petroleum, whose contract was just overturned, began as a hotel and casino company before it was granted a concession to explore for oil. The company was granted exploration rights by the Government of Belize over the Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular travel destination made famous by ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Bill Lahey, a senior partner at the law firm of Anderson & Kreiger that helped represent Oceana in this case said, “Anderson & Kreiger is honored to have helped Oceana win this major victory which protects one of world’s most precious barrier reefs and tourism in Belize.”

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