For several months now, 7News has been closely following Oceana’s Supreme Court challenge to 6 offshore oil drilling contracts which the Government Issued between 2005 and 2007. Today, that matter concluded in dramatic fashion when Justice Oswell Legall ruled in Oceana’s favor, vindicating the position they took in 2001 – that quite a lot of Production Sharing Agreements aren’t worth the paper they are written on.
The contracts under challenge were those issued to the companies Island Oil Belize Ltd, Tropical Energy Ltd, Petro Belize Company Ltd, Princess Petroleum Ltd, Providence Energy Belize Ltd and Sol Oil Belize Ltd.
After several months of court hearings, Justice Legall delivered the judgment against GOB along with very strict orders, which sends a clear message that the court did not agree with the procedure employed when they were granted by the then Musa Administration.
Oceana’s Vice President, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, was – in a word – ecstatic, and today, she spoke to us outside of court about how challenging it was to get to this outcome.
Audrey Matura-Shepherd – VP, Oceana Belize
"It is a historic day for Belize. It is not about Oceana, it is about this country. I'm hoping that this judgment will give Belizeans the strength they need to know that not everything that the government does, we just have to sit back and take it. We have a judicial system and I've been trying to educate people about the Judicial system for a long time and explain to them that democracy only works when we the people use the systems. The judiciary is a very important part of that system and the dependence of that judiciary is important. To me this ruling today is a victory for the country, for democracy, for the people of this nation and especially a victory for our Barrier Reef that cannot speak for itself and all those beautiful fish that we take for granted that it's there. It's an intricate part of our cultural heritage so it's a wonderful day. I'm sure you all see the excitement on our face. It's wonderful because we have had to tolerate personal attacks, threats and we've been undermined in many ways. Why we don't go public with it because we don't want a red-herring to distract the people from the issue. To me it was worth every sacrifice we made. This decision also vindicates the position of the people, when we had the People's Referendum, when we had 96% of the population said they did not want Offshore Oil. Well here we have it! It's a written decision of a first instance court. The government can take it if they want and appeal it but we're being exonerated today. Belizeans - celebrate, celebrate! Because you are people of the reef.
The court has said that these contracts and null and void. So what happens next is that everyone of those Oil Companies cannot do anything. None of them can continue any seismic testing, they cannot continue anything under that contract. We were given an injunction. An injunction means that it stopped. We will be one of those organizations that will guard and if we have to come to this court room everyday to bring that ruling against those people then we will make sure that this law is obeyed. Let me tell you what happens in this country. Many times the courts gives their ruling and people in government and in authority think that they can undermine the court system and the people will just sit back. I am calling on Belizeans that if they make an attempt to do that, this country will go on mass protest. Because if we are in a democracy; the legislation made a law and you saw that the ruling was based on the environmental act. It is saying that there was an intent that the environment should be protected and if you are to do anything or any development it doesn't mean you can develop, there are processes in place and these processes must be followed."
GOB Says “So What” To Judgment, But Still Appeals But, how effective is the judgment? It’s a question not clearly answered because although the court has declared them null and void, 3 of the contracts were terminated last week, and 1 of them expired last year. So, the judgment affects only Princess Petroleum Limited and Providence Energy Belize Limited which were extended long before today’s dramatic ruling. And more importantly, GOB still has the authority to issue new contracts to these same companies if they so choose.
So, today we asked Godfrey Smith, attorney for the claimants, to explain what this judgment means for the overall mechanism that GOB has to employ when they grant these Production Sharing Agreements.
He told us that it’s a major signal that the environmental checklists are there for a reason
Godfrey Smith - Attorney for Claimants
"The decision is welcomed because it's the first decision of it's kind involving Oil Exploration Offshore. I'm sure you're aware that there have been judicial challenges in court concerning onshore - the ones on land. This was the first to be challenged to production sharing agreement to offshore oil exploration. The main lesson is that decision makers should take care to ensure that before they enter into production signing agreement, that they are aware of all the full certitude of environmentally connected legislation whether it's the environmental protection act or whether it's some other piece of legislation and marine reserves. Take time to ensure that those are properly honored, not for the sake of pacifying environmentalist but to make sure that once the investor is on the way and has made an investment then he is not faced with these kinds of challenges. In that way both sides are better off. The environmental checklist would have been complied with and the investor himself is then satisfied that the decision maker has followed the laws of the land."
Today, we contacted Denys Barrow, attorney for GOB, who told us that he respects the ruling the court, and also appreciates the jurisdiction of all the courts, including that of the Court of Appeal. The Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology, and Public Utilities said it more clearly today in their press release. They indicated that they will appeal this judgment.
They added that these contracts were granted by the last Musa Administration.
But, until that appeal takes place, GOB must abide by the orders of Justice Legall, which included a declaration that the Production Sharing Agreement are null and void, a declaration that EIA’s are required to be done before any oil contracts could be entered into; an injunction restraining the defendants, servants and agents from carrying out the provisions of the PSA’s; and that the defendants are to pay the cost of the applicants.