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May 12, 2006

Public sentiment heats up in oil debate

Story PictureSince the official announcement of a petroleum discovery in the Cayo district in June 2005, oil has been the Belizean buzz word. Discourse has flowed throughout society and experts have popped up faster than wells in Spanish Lookout. With the reality in mind that not all the information is grounded in truth, a public meeting was organized this week in the capital city. News Five’s Janelle Chanona reports.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
It was standing room only inside the George Price Centre in Belmopan on Thursday night as citizens gathered for a public forum entitled: ?The state of Belize?s fledging oil industry?.

The format of the meeting included formal presentations by officials of Belize Natural Energy, the Government of Belize and a spokesperson for the Spanish Lookout community.

Johnny Briceño, Minister of Natural Resource and Environment
?It?s important for us certainly as a people and as a government, and I have been saying this over and over, that this is one time that we must get it right.?

In an address called ?Developing our petroleum industry, safeguarding our natural resources and protecting the environment?, Briceño focused on what he called the big picture.

John Briceño
?How do we develop the petroleum industry in a way that will enhance Belize?s development? Its economic growth while benefiting, especially those most in need and even equally important, how do we do this in a way that protects and preserve our environment? We can not answer these questions completely with the time allotted to me today, but we can begin our reflection by acknowledging how much we have to learn together the government and the Belizean People.?

?I believe we have begun to do this in areas of taxation, royalty, ownership and so on. No, we have not arrived at the answers to taxation, but we have a formula to work with. We can look at best practices around the world to see how they manage the issue. On royalty we are talking with the experts, and we will listen to the people, as well as other stake holders. We are pleased with the current state of negotiations with B.N.E. with respect to ownership and we are keeping the protection and preservation of the environment, at the forefront of all exploration and development of the industry.?

According to Briceño, part of that development will include the establishment of a petroleum fund with monies already slated to be used to in the fight against poverty, education, and strengthening of Belizean dollar.

Johnny Briceño
?The idea behind this is that at the end of the year, the petroleum fund then reports to the National Assembly as to the amounts that have been received. And obviously we can not expect to spend every dollar that we collect. All of that has to be worked out yet as to how much of it we have to spend in the target areas that we want to address in the country.?

But before Belmopan starts counting its oil chickens, talks continue between government negotiators and Belize Natural Energy executives on issues of taxation and ownership.

Alex Cranberg, Chairman, B.N.E./C.H.X.
?For Belize, the big question is can it get to the fifty to one hundred million barrels plus range. And if it does, it has an enormous impact, a positive impact, economic impact on the country. To put it in prospective we will go through some numbers in a minute. A hundred million barrels found in this country provides even with the existing terms even if no terms were changed from the existing contract provides enough wealth to eliminate the national debt and to provide thousands of jobs. Five million barrels helps, but its not going be something that?s going change the dramatically change the wealth and prosperity of the country.?

Alex Cranberg is the Chairman of B.N.E. and Clare Hannah Exploration, C.H.X. The company is pushing for competition.

Alex Cranberg
?Finding more oil has the biggest impact on the country and providing incentives to do that is healthy for the country and for its profit share. Under a hundred barrel case you can see that the government share can reach a billion dollars, which is a billion dollars U.S. which is hugely impact for the country. And interesting enough under the blue scenario it?s not very sensed of the actually amount that the government gets is not very sensitive to profit share. Because of the likely hood that if you find more oil, if you got more companies competing to find oil. That case of course, will be if you have a competitive environment, lots of companies coming in, and they bid up and give high terms and if you find a lot of because you?ve got a competitive environment.?

But one group who has had to compete for attention is the Mennonite Community.

Ervin Thiessen, Mennonite Spokesman
?I think there are two sides to this story, we like to work with the people and they are being good people to work with. But we have another side of the story that?s also what about of our privacy and the disruption that erupts that?s also there.?

Representative Ervin Thiessen was candid in his remarks.

Ervin Thiessen
?There has been a major disruption in the community way of life caused by influence of strangers, trucks, smells of wells and flaring gas. We have wells close to businesses and homes. We have community members feeling sick, and having headaches from the smell of oil, so those are things that are not being heard everyday but those are things that are happening. We would prefer to not have any production in our lands rather than money. Our way of life means more than money. Because the laws of Belize we have to allow oil drilling.?

?We have not had seen any royalties paid to the community so far which has been recently told to us that we might get in a year or two years we might see royalties as well.?

The final part of last night?s meeting included a question and answer segment. While we were not able to obtain most of that footage, there was this enquiry from the floor.

?For the Minister, is there a plan to nationalize the oil industry somewhere down the line, no offence??

John Briceño

Reporting for News Five I am Janelle Chanona.

As a part of Thursday night’s forum, audience members were also presented with bottles of Belizean crude.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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