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Baroness of the Belize oil fields

Irish investors are laughing all the way to the bank after striking black gold in Central America.

Hundreds of people from Northern Ireland and the Republic have just received their first payout after taking a gamble on a Belfast-born oil baroness.

Feisty geologist Susan Morrice silenced her many critics after defying the odds to strike oil in Belize on her first wildcat operation.

Ironically dozens of explorations had been carried out in the country over 50 years by oil giants including the likes of Shell and BP, but to no avail.

It took Ms Morrice, sister of former MLA Jane Morrice, years to privately raise the capital needed to fund the exercise - just one drill costs several million.

Josh Stewart, a former Belfast man and a director with Belize Natural Energy (BNE), said: "Investors who have never invested, have invested in this company on Susan's belief that there was oil there when everybody else said there wasn't... and at Christmas they got their first, significant and massive dividend."

Although it has been four years since the first oil strike it was worth the wait as some investors, who shared a pot of $10m, received payouts of up to $750,000.

And to cement Ms Morrice's belief that there was a rich source of oil in Belize, BNE declared its second oil field last month.

BNE is Belize's only petroleum-producing company and is pumping 5,000 barrels of oil per day from 10 wells at Spanish Outlook - with a gross revenue of $112m in 2008.

Although in the great scheme of oil producers Belize is a small fish in a very big pond, some geologists claim the country as a whole could produce 50,000 barrels a day.

But with the price of oil currently hovering around $83 a barrel, that still makes BNE pretty rich.

Denver-based Ms Morrice explained: "What happened was absolutely unbelievable, we started to drill and we hit the best oil in the world, light sweet crude, beating all odds. The oil is like the icing on top of the cake.

"At first we thought we had hit about six million barrels recoverable and with each independent engineering report instead of decreasing, it actually seems to be increasing and I think we are heading towards 20 million barrels of oil recoverable.

"Now we have just discovered a second oilfield."

The internationally renowned explorationist with decades of experience in oil exploration attributes her success to her 'entrepreneurial spirit' and 'can do attitude'.

She said: "I have been working in Belize since 1984 and I knew almost instinctively as well as scientifically that there was oil there. It just had to be found.

"I am not necessarily a better geologist than Shell or BP, it was a belief that I was right and no matter how many doubts - even from the biggest oil companies - I kept that invincible vision and if you do that, then you do not get swayed by the doubt.

"You have the odd moment where you think 'oh my God' but actually the dominant force is the way forward."

And energy is a common thread in the family as Ms Morrice is married to Alex Cranberg, chairman of Denver-based energy company Aspect Holdings. Another company of the couple's CHx, a private investment firm, is the joint venture partner of BNE.

In 2003, BNE negotiated a Product Sharing Agreement with the Government of Belize and that partnership has proved lucrative for both parties as BNE is now the number one revenue driver for the country.

Mr Stewart, who attended Methodist College, said: "We have been selling our oil onto Costa Rica , but we actually have a new partnership starting the first quarter of this year with the US refineries.

"We will be strengthening the Belize-US government to government ties so we are pumping all that oil into the US refineries which is a huge boost."

However, not only has BNE proved a financial success, it has also had a major impact on the local community in terms of employment, revenue, funding and social development.

More than $100,000 have already been donated to local schools and flood relief schemes after the company and its Irish investors signed a deal which ensured monies from oil revenues were spent on improving health, education and the environment.

And Ms Morrice is adamant that is why so many people from Northern Ireland and the Republic were prepared to back BNE.

She said: "I find in Ireland that a lot of people really want to make a difference. I think what attracted them into our investment was not only a belief in our vision, but a desire to make a difference in the country of Belize, which is very poor."

BNE's accomplishments have also provided employment for 400 people and created spin-off businesses.

Ms Morrice said: "What has happened is BNE has gone to the number one revenue generator in the whole country in less than three years; it's phenomenal, it's another unheard of thing.

"The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Men who own their tank trucks come, fill up their tanks and take it down to the ships for export. Restaurants, grocery shops and little hotels are springing up."

Another scheme the company is involved in is the BNE Dream Trust, which will provide microfinancing and seed capital to help Belizeans realise their business dreams.

So the crude oil in Spanish Lookout has not only made Ms Morrice, a past recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a lot of money but it has allowed Belize to dream of energy independence and a better future for this poor nation.

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