The attorney for Oceana Belize, Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage concluded oral arguments challenging the validity of six offshore Production Sharing Agreements in the courtroom of Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall. If the environmentalists have their way, they would have the court quash oil concession contracts to Island Oil Belize Limited, Tropical Energy Limited, Petro Belize, Princess Petroleum, Providence Energy Belize and Sol Oil Belize, which were granted between 2005 and 2007. The decision now rests with Justice Legall who has reserved judgment for a later date. The Ministry of Natural Resources was represented by Senior Counsel Denys Barrow and Naima Barrow who felt confident about their oral arguments. 

Denys Barrow, Attorney for Government of Belize 

Denys Barrow

“The case seeks to challenge six agreements, six contract agreements, for petroleum operations over different large blocks of land in Belize; ranging from two hundred and odd thousand acres to two million acres. These contract were made in 2004 and 2007. 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. And in our view that is something which is beyond the level at this stage of proper challenge. 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.”

Oceana would have contracts quashed

Audrey Matura Shepherd

Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith represented the environmental groups. And Smith argued that the P.S.A.’s breached the Petroleum Act and also contravened the Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act and the National Parks Act. According to Audrey Matura Shepherd, Oceana’s Vice President in Belize, they believe that the renewal of concessions also broke some regulations.

Audrey Matura Shepherd, V.P., Oceana Belize

“We believe that the petroleum act has been violated; that there are these provisions in the petroleum act that sets out who qualifies to get a contract. 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. As judge indicated in court today, when he gives his written decision, he will give his reason why he allowed us to continue our argument to seek a remedy that you would have usually gotten in judicial review. And that is a remedy where you can find that the contracts are not only null and void, but that you can actually quash the contract and bring it to an end. It’s really gonna be interesting how it goes on. And the other provisions are the environmental legislation. We are saying there are all these environmental legislation that are there to be a safeguard to how development occurs. We are not saying that there shouldn’t be any development in this country; we are saying that when you do development, it has to be within these provisions of the law. And 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. 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 to happen and we are saying no. By his own admission, what they are saying, look we aren’t doing what the contracts have required us to do; because these contracts in some instances have been renewed a second and third time. And if you read the contracts, they are saying that every contract period when it is renewed, it has to be that government is satisfied that they have done what was expected of them in the contract in the first place; the amount of work. And they haven’t even done that, but yet they keep renewing. It’s unfortunate that in this case—and we will continue pressing—we’ve been asking long before we started this case; under freedom of information act for evidence that shows on what basis these decisions were made; on what basis they are renewing. And sadly up to today, we have not received any information.”

If the case is ruled in favor of the environmental groups, Oceana Belize also intends to have the contracts cancelled.

Channel 7