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Rumble in the Jungle Over Oil

In Belize, wildcatters, the government and the local Mennonites -- advised by an ex-con -- all seek a share of newly discovered black gold.

April 05, 2006|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

SPANISH LOOKOUT, Belize — This tiny country struck oil in much the same way Jed Clampett stumbled on a gusher 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, who advertised the incident to woo private investors.

The cast of characters linked to the find is as colorful as anything on television. They include speculators motivated by an Irish self-help guru, Mennonites who have hired an ex-con to extract a better deal for petroleum on their land and a seismic engineer with an unshakable belief that his impoverished nation was brimming with oil.

Belize joined the ranks of the world's oil exporters in January, when its first shipload of crude hit the market. Production is a mere 3,000 barrels a day, but some Belizeans are dreaming of a payday to rival that of the Clampetts'.

And like the sitcom millionaires, people in this Central American nation of 280,000 are getting a glimpse of the opportunities -- and opportunists -- that accompany $60-a-barrel oil.

Local entrepreneurs are purchasing tanker trucks. Politicians are salivating over a potential windfall. Environmentalists are bracing for the worst.

Across Belize, rumors abound of oilmen in Stetsons rushing to cash in.

"When you see Texans coming down here, you know that something is up," said Belize City bartender Robert Williams, tapping his blender with authority 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 mainly by American and Irish investors -- last year found the first significant deposits of oil. In contrast to the heavy sulfur-laden stuff found in neighboring Guatemala and Mexico, Belizean crude is so sweet and light that some local farmers are putting it raw into their 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. Normally laid-back Belizeans took to the streets last year to protest a series of price hikes. Hefty taxes on imported gasoline have them paying nearly $5 a gallon at the pump.

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.

Belize Natural Energy executives say they won't know the true size of the find until they do more testing, but one partner told a local newspaper last year that as much as 75 million barrels could be under a 4,000-acre parcel in Spanish Lookout.

"If we could produce even 20,000 barrels a day, you can imagine what we could do with that," Briceno said. "It could make a huge difference for our little country."

An Undying Belief

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-sized 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 Belize Natural Energy made history when it struck oil on its first attempt, just 15 miles from the spot where the farmer first found petroleum.

Key to the effort were two of the firm's partners: Northern Irish-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 on a dream that his nation could be an oil producer.

Usher's 89-year-old mother, Jane, who still works as general manager of a local credit union, recalls her son bringing rocks to Sunday dinner, insisting they were evidence that Belize was rich in petroleum.

He didn't live to see his dream fulfilled, dying in 2004 of what his mother said was 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 to locals by the respectful title 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 previously unexplored territory around Spanish Lookout. They found what they believed to be a sizable oil field 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.

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