On Thursday (Jan. 4), Donald Trump proposed allowing oil drilling in nearly all waters situated off of US shores. If the proposal passes, it will open up more than one billion square kilometers (about 390 million square miles) of area previously protected for environmental reasons.
The oil industry cheered the announcement, calling it “long overdue,” while environmental groups called it a “shameful giveaway” to the oil industry, as The New York Times summarized.
Among the hullabaloo, one piece of good news didn’t get the attention it deserves. On Dec. 29, the Belize government voted to implement an indefinite moratorium on all new oil exploration in its waters.
Belize produces some 3,000 barrels of oil per day, a minuscule amount compared to more than 1.5 million barrels per day that the US produces in the Gulf of Mexico alone. And, yet, Belize’s announcement is an important one.
Like most developing countries, Belize relies on its natural resources for its economy. Oil constitutes more than a quarter of its exports. And, yet, thanks to grassroots campaigns, Belizeans were convinced that protecting its coral reefs will be more important to the country, economically, in the long-term.
Environmental groups have been lobbying the Belize government for an off shore drilling ban since at least 2006, when the country’s only oil company hit new reserves. Belize is home to the longest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere, and oil drilling puts at risk all the diversity of life that the reef supports.
Tourism brings in more than $200 million to Belize, which is more than 10% of its gross domestic product, and the reefs are the country’s biggest tourist attraction. The barrier reefs support more than 190,000 livelihoods in a country with a population of 370,000.
“Belize is a small country making a mighty commitment to putting the environment first,” says Nadia Bood, a reef scientist with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an organization that campaigned for the protection of the reefs. The fund got more than 450,000 people from across the world to email the Belize government about the issue.
“Ending oil activities will encourage other countries to follow suit and take the urgent action that is needed to protect our planet’s oceans,” says Chris Gee, a campaigner at WWF. “Like the Belize Barrier Reef, nearly half of natural World Heritage sites worldwide are threatened by industrial pressures.”
Belize’s decision to choose reefs over oil is something that the world needs to do a lot more if it is serious about saving its coral. A new study (paywall) published last week shows that coral reefs are bleaching four times as frequently as they did in the 1980s. The main reason is human-induced climate change which is causing oceans to become warmer and more acidic—both act as poison for highly sensitive corals.
The more fossil fuels we dig up and burn, the more carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere and make climate change worse.