Features — 08 February 2013 — by Miriam Longsworth

Oceana Belize and representatives for the Ministry of Natural Resources met in the courtroom of Supreme Justice Oswell Legall on Tuesday, February 5, for the complete hearing of environmental group Oceana’s ongoing fight against offshore oil drilling in Belize.

Oceana Belize, Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA), and the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage were represented by Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith and the GoB was represented by Senior Counsels Denys Barrow and Naima Barrow. Both sides gave their oral arguments in a lengthy hearing that lasted about four hours.

Oceana Belize is challenging the validity of Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) that were part of the offshore drilling contracts which the Ministry of Natural Resources granted to Island Oil Belize Ltd., Tropical Energy Ltd., Petro Belize Co Ltd., Princess Petroleum Ltd., Providence Energy Belize Ltd. and Sol Oil Belize Ltd. The contracts, which were made in 2004 and 2007, are for blocks of land ranging between 200,000 acres and two million acres in size.

The environmental groups’ arguments included the assertion that the contracts for the PSAs were granted in breach of regulations and that they violated the Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act and the National Parks Act. They also argued that the entities to which the contracts were granted did not carry out specific requirements.

The government’s argument was that the issue being argued by the environmentalists is premature.

“The essential point that we made is that it is far too late to be challenging these things now especially since they are seeking to challenge, not the decision making but the lawfulness of the contract,” attorney Denys Barrow said. “And in our view that is something which is beyond the level at this stage of proper challenge. As I understand it, Oceana’s main concern is with the reef, with marine areas and so on. The advocacy that I am aware of does not direct itself largely to land-based activities. In the submission that we made, we indicated that while the blocked areas include marine areas, there is not any indication at this stage that anybody is looking to do any offshore oil exploration, even at this stage. Certainly the possibility exists, but we suggest that until it gets closer to a probability or a threat of doing so, there is not anything for us to be concerned about,” he further stated.

Oceana Belize Vice President Audrey-Matura Shepherd said that their argument is not premature and that they are not arguing that there shouldn’t be any development in the country, but that development should be done within the provisions of the law.

“Interestingly, in most of these legislations, what they looked at was how do we make sure that when development occurs, paramount to our development in Belize, is that we have protection of the environment,” she said. “For that one, they said that, look, we are coming premature. It is as though you have to wait for some major damage to happen and then you say, okay, let’s put into effect these laws. It will be interesting to see how the court rules because of course we don’t know how the decision will go yet. But their position is, wait until dah almost time for something bad to happen and we are saying no.”

Matura-Shepherd said that she sees it as a victory to just have the matter heard before the Supreme Court, and she encourages all Belizeans to take interest in the issue of offshore oil exploration in their country. She said she believes that they made very strong arguments in court and one of them is that the Petroleum Act has been violated.

“We believe that the Petroleum Act has been violated; that there are these provisions in the Petroleum Act that set out who qualifies to get a contract,” Matura-Shepherd said.” And clearly we said that it had to be that according to section eleven of the Petroleum Act, you had to prove your ability to carry out any oil exploration. It was interesting in the written submission of the other side, they were saying no, you can even get a Shell Company, once the Shell Company later on had companies to back them up, that’s okay. And we are saying that cannot be in the right vein of the law, because the law was clear that you had to have the proven ability to show that you can carry out this. Why would you give it to someone that has no expertise, no knowledge of that field? So that they speculate? The law wasn’t written in such a way that you can allow speculation,” she went on to say.

Justice Legall has reserved the decision for the hearing for a later date.

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