Oil in Belize.
It could be an epic poem written by Byron, or a knowing verse by Rudyard Kipling.
It’s also a ripping adventure, with a small band of True Believers finding victory on a remote frontier.
Oil in Belize has two main chapters.
The first, a tale of determination.
The second, a twist of politics and fate.
At the end, it’s the story of a tiny part of a huge industry, in a very small corner of the world.
Belize stretches down 174 miles of Caribbean Sea shoreline, just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and east of neighboring Guatemala.
Covering less than 9,000 square miles, Belize is the second smallest nation in the Americas, and the only Central American country without a Pacific Ocean coast.
Formerly known as British Honduras, it gained independence from Britain in 1981. English is still its official language.
Decades of exploration dating back to the 1950s found minimal crude oil in Belize, nothing near commercial production.
Plenty of companies tried.
“Basically there were 51 wells drilled on very good prospects -- Esso, Phillips, Placid, Spartan -- they were really good stuff,” said Larry Jones, president of Spartan Petroleum Corp. in Houston (and the current chair of the AAPG House of Delegates).
Now Spartan Petroleum is back, having signed a Production Sharing Agreement with the Belize government, covering a contract exploration area of almost 250,000 acres.
Given Mexico’s prolific oil production and a smattering of small but commercial wells in northern Guatemala, finding oil in north Belize might have sounded perfectly predictable.
Not to Jones.
For one thing, a 50-year history of dry holes did not inspire confidence.
Also, likely equivalent producing zones in Guatemala are far from prolific. The entire country’s production is estimated around 22,000 barrels per day.
And in fact, the real daily oil production of Guatemala is:
- Anybody’s guess, and
- Not much.
“I wasn’t very sure there was oil in Belize,” Jones said. “I had a 20-year hiatus waiting on oil to be found there.”
A Dream -- with Benefits
So when tiny Belize Natural Energy Ltd. discovered commercial oil reserves with three good wells onshore Belize last year, it sent a ripple through the industry.
The company had signed an agreement with Belize in 2002 and obtained an exploration license that ultimately covered 595,000 acres. It then acquired and processed 2-D seismic data in areas of interest.
By 2005, Belize Natural was ready to spud its first well, not far from unsuccessful previous drilling.
A true wildcat and longshot, the well came in.
Production reportedly flowed from two Cretaceous zones above 4,000 feet, the Yalbac and Hill Bank formations. Both are believed to have equivalents in the producing Coban formation in Guatemala.
Unlike other regional production, the Belize crude tested sweet -- 38-degree API gravity.
Initial production of 500 barrels per day from the discovery well rose to 2,800 through additional drilling and development.
The government of Belize has 10 percent equity in the project.
Investment company CHx Capital of Denver also hold an equity share, according to CHx executive Todd Neugebauer.
The discovery came near Spanish Lookout, about 125 miles east of Guatemala’s largest oil field and less than 35 miles northwest of Belmopan, Belize’s capital.
Belmopan is noted as one of the least populous capitals of any non-island nation in the world. San Marino city in San Marino may be smaller, but San Marino covers less than three-tenths of a percent as much area as Belize.
In one irony, the Spanish Lookout discovery came not far from the site of an early Belize wildcat, drilled by Gulf Oil in 1956.
The field lies under land of a German-speaking Mennonite settlement, which will share a small portion of royalties.
Leading the Way
Oil in Belize could be a novel by Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, a biting commentary from V.S. Naipaul.
It’s the story of two women from Ireland; of another two long-time believers in Belize’s potential; and of their investors and supporters.
One of the women, AAPG member Susan Morrice, is a Denver-based geologist with two decades of experience in Belize.
Jones has the highest regard for her.
“She stayed 20 years and just kept working the system,” he said.
CHx Capital, a backer of the discovery play, is headed by Denver oilman and AAPG member Alex Cranberg.
Cranberg is known as a wily investor -- and also as Morrice’s husband.
The other woman, Sheila McCaffrey, came from outside the industry to become eventual chairman of the operating company.
Another founder, AAPG member Jean Cornec, did seminal work in the 1980s identifying Belize’s stratigraphy. Paul Marriott, a British rig contractor, headed the drilling operations.
But probably the biggest believer in the country’s petroleum potential, Mike Usher, was a Belize engineer who died before the Spanish Lookout drilling began.
The discovery well and two confirmations -- Usher 1, Usher 2 and Usher 3 -- were named in his honor.
‘A Real Puzzle Box’
AAPG member David King, a professor in the geology department at Auburn University, has conducted stratigraphic studies in Belize.
An overview paper, “Stratigraphy of Belize North of the 17th Parallel,” by King, Kevin Pope and Lucille Petruny, appeared in the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions in 2004.
King referred to Belize as “a real puzzle box” in terms of geology.
“There is no formal stratigraphy in Belize. It’s all informal. Cornec himself says all the units are informal,” he said.
“For a lot of the units, the type sections are just not there anymore,” King added.
In general, south Belize is dominated by the Maya Mountains, a rugged plateau with a thick section of deformed and metamorphosed Carboniferous-Permian sedimentary and volcanic strata, according to King.
A thin section of Paleocene-Pleistocene carbonates comprises most of the coastal plain in north Belize. A moderately thick section of Mesozoic strata, mostly carbonates, is found in the subsurface and in outcrops near the mountains.
In north Belize, the Lower Cretaceous Hill Bank formation appears as a shallow shelf carbonate unit that developed across the area before subsidence of the Chipas-Peten Basin, according to King.
The Hill Bank, consisting of porous, tan to gray limestones and dolostones, may be equivalent to the lowermost Coban formation and the San Ricardo in Guatemala.
The interbedded limestones, dolostones, shales and anhydrites of the Yalbac formation represent sedimentation on the eastern margin of the Chipas-Peten Basin, which began subsiding during Early to Middle Cretaceous, King wrote.
In northern Belize, the Yalbac thickens to more than 3,200 feet, as shown by well control. King et al. believe the Yalbac is probably equivalent to the upper Coban formation and lower beds of the Campur formation in Guatemala.
Two Anschutz Overseas Corp. wells drilled in 1972 made note of a dolostone “Roaring Creek oil zone” above the base of the Yalbac, King said.
A Source Mystery
Source rock remains a mystery for geologists who’ve studied Belize, including Cornec, and for previous exploration attempts.
“We primarily had a problem with sourcing,” said Jones, who differentiates the country’s oil from Guatemalan production.
“There’s quite a bit of Jurassic involvement in Guatemala,” he said. “That’s not a very strong province right now.”
“In the Corozal Basin, there’s a lot of oil that’s tight that has Jurassic footprints,” he added.
King said stratigraphic mapping of Belize remains incomplete, and is complicated by the fact that the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources does not act as a clearinghouse for formal nomenclature.
At the K-T boundary, “there’s a fairly substantial section, in some cases 15-20 meters of ejecta, and it’s not even mapped,” he noted.
With so much work remaining, King sees all of Belize as a fertile region for stratigraphers.
“What’s so interesting to me as a stratigrapher is that it’s like the wild, wild west,” he said. “There’s a potential to find stratigraphic units that nobody has ever seen before.”
Oil in Belize should be a play by Terence, the ancient Roman-Carthaginian with an eye for tragicomedy.
After Belize Natural Energy announced its discovery, the country’s media widely reported royalty payments to the government at 7 to 7.5 percent.
That led to criticism of the official agreement with the company. Royalties in other countries approach 70 percent, some commentators noted.
Belize’s Minister of Natural Resources, the Hon. John Briceno, defended the terms. He compared criticism in hindsight to speculation after winning a national lottery.
“Now that you know what you have, it’s like the Lotto. After the Lotto has played and you know the numbers, you would say, ‘If I used these numbers, I would have won the Lotto,’” he observed.
Other officials defended the terms as necessary to attract exploration after so many past failures.
Local unhappiness over the government’s take remained.
In June, Belize announced plans to tax Belize Natural’s profits at 40 percent.
McCaffrey responded that the existing agreement set income tax at 25 percent. A tax rate of 40 percent would hamstring further exploration and development work and discourage industry involvement in Belize, she said.
By early July, the company and the government were locked in dispute, operations were suspended and McCaffrey had even threatened to pull up stakes and “go to another place in the world that has better conditions and more stable conditions.”
The government’s response:
See you later.
Oh, and thanks for the oil.
The Stuff of Dreams
Clearly, Belize could not enter the oil age without an environmental dispute.
That’s happening in Sarstoon Temash National Park in south Belize, where environmentalists say seismic work for exploration could disrupt a bird habitat, the only known lowland sphagnum moss bog in Central America and the only comfra palm forest in Belize.
King and his co-authors began their paper on Belize with a quote from Aldous Huxley, writing about the ends of the Earth.
Considering the background of the discovery group, a more poignant quote would come from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats:
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.