Features — 31 May 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Chief Justice sets new hearing date for injunction against GOB petroleum contracts

“Misconception or outright mischief,” says Oceana’s Audrey Matura-Shepherd

“If the Government continues to be bound by the injunction, the Government can’t tell them [Princess/Treaty] what to do; so they will be left to run their exploration without any supervision by the Government. That is the whole point of our application:” Denys Barrow, SC

The Government of Belize has applied to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution, to put on pause an injunction granted by Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall in April, restraining the Government, as well as its servants and agents, from carrying out the provisions of the petroleum contracts it had granted to six companies: Island Oil, Miles Tropical Energy Ltd., Petro Belize Company Ltd., Princess Petroleum Ltd., Providence Energy Belize Ltd., and SOL Oil Belize Ltd., on 25 May 2004 and 17 October 2007.

Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin was due to hear that application for the stay on the injunction this morning; however, he said in court that apart from the bundle presented to the court by Government counsel, Denys Barrow, SC, all other documents arrived on his desk at 9:00 this morning – the time that had been set for trial.

“There is no way I can hear the matter now,” the Chief Justice said, before adjourning to 10:30 a.m. next Tuesday, June 4.

Following this morning’s very brief court session, the media spoke with attorney Barrow, as well as Audrey Matura-Shepherd, vice president of Oceana in Belize, the main respondent in the case before CJ Benjamin.

Oceana has publicly complained that despite the Legall ruling last month, Treaty Energy Corporation, joint venture partner of Princess Petroleum in Belize, has continued petroleum exploration works on its San Juan site in Stann Creek.

Barrow takes the view, however, that the Legall injunction does not bar the company from carrying out works in Stann Creek, but it stops the Government from having oversight over what they are doing.

Apart from issuing the injunction in April, Justice Legall made two major findings: (1) that no environmental assessment was carried out before the agreements were awarded, violating the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), and (2) that the contracts were given to companies that were unqualified and did not demonstrate a proven ability to contribute the necessary funds, assets, machinery equipment, tools and technical expertise necessary for the effective performance of the terms and conditions of the agreements, contrary to the Petroleum Act.

Matura-Shepherd told the media today that “…because there is an injunction, Treaty cannot do anything.”

Barrow says, to the contrary, that, Treaty/Princess “can go ahead because nothing stops them…”

He told the media that, “The injunction granted by Justice Legall has the effect of preventing the Government from regulating and monitoring and guiding what the petroleum explorers are doing. So the judgment enjoins the Government – imposes an injunction upon the Government – but it does nothing to the petroleum explorers. So they can do what they want, because no judgment binds them but the Government is prevented by the injunction from regulating what they’re doing, from approving or disapproving of what they are doing, from—as the injunction says—carrying out the provisions of the petroleum sharing agreement.”

Barrow contends that “the contract, as between them [the companies] and the Government, so far as they [the companies] are concerned, is valid and subsisting.”

How can the companies claim to be acting legally under PSAs which the court has ruled to be “unlawful, null and void”? We put that question to Senior Counsel Barrow, and he told us: “The court has refused to quash the PSAs. You remember that part of the judgment? The court refused to quash it. Therefore, it means that the court gave a declaration and there is very clear law from the Court of Appeal of Belize which says that a declaration does not enforce itself – a declaration, Justice Carey says, may lawfully be ignored.”

Asked why the Government has applied for a stay of execution in the court, Barrow said: “If the Government continues to be bound by the injunction, the Government can’t tell them [Treaty] what to do; so they will be left to run their exploration without any supervision by the Government. That is the whole point of our application.”

Barrow said that Legall made a “serious mistake” in not binding the company by injunction. He said that that mistake was stopping one party from taking action on contract but leaving the other party, in this case Treaty, “free to do what they are entitled to do lawfully under the contract.”

He also said that the court can’t proceed now to bind the companies with an injunction after judgment has been given.

“The judgment has been given; the case is finished. The companies are home free,” Barrow told us, confirming that the Legall ruling is being appealed.

Audrey Matura-Shepherd, Oceana spokesperson, told Amandala that when they brought the case against Government, Justice Legall made sure they served companies to give them an opportunity to join as interested parties.

She told us that the application to freeze the injunction was instigated by two petroleum companies, Princess and Providence, which wrote Prime Minister Dean Barrow and asked Government to go to court to ask that the injunction be removed.

Matura-Shepherd said that the claim by the Government that the injunction does not affect the companies is either “a misconception or outright mischief.”

“The Department of Geology and Petroleum cannot move a finger to do anything [to] assist them. No Government officer can do anything to assist any oil company at this point. If we ever find evidence of such thing, we are moving the court for contempt of a court order,” she said.

The court knows Government is in control and that is why it issued the injunction against the Government, said Matura-Shepherd.

The Belize Constitution says all petroleum assets are owned by the Government of Belize, and the petroleum laws say only Government can develop those resources; but it can contract out the work to companies, she explained.

Matura-Shepherd questioned: “Government is the gatekeeper…. If it were true that the injunction has no effect, as the Prime Minister has said, why come to court to have it removed?”

She said that if the Supreme Court puts a stay of execution on the injunction, Oceana will appeal.

“This is a very important matter of national importance, and we are glad we are using the process to settle the differences,” she told the press.

The main affidavit evidence for the Government comes from Director of Geology and Petroleum Andre Cho.

For its part, Oceana has secured expert witness from Susan Harvey of Harvey Consultancy in the USA.

The Toledo Institute of Development and Environment (TIDE) and Matura-Shepherd have also entered affidavit evidence for the respondents.

Eamon Courtenay, SC, is holding brief for Godfrey Smith, SC, who has other overseas commitments, and Courtenay appeared today for Oceana and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA).

The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage is represented by Antoinette Moore, SC.

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