Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall ruled this morning that the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment exceeded his jurisdiction when between 2005 and 2007 he granted oil concession contracts 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, Justice Legall said, were not granted according to proper procedure and failed to take into account both environmental concerns and legal ones. He quashed them all and granted an injunction to prevent continued activity in the areas of concern, all located offshore Belize, around the Barrier Reef. The case was brought initially by Oceana in Belize, later joined by Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage and was argued in February by Senior Godfrey Smith for the 3 NGO’s and Denys Barrow SC and Naima Barrow for the Ministry of Natural Resources. The ruling sparked jubilant scenes outside the courtroom for the winners who claimed vindication after a multi-year campaign against offshore drilling. The centerpiece of that campaign is Audrey Matura Shepherd, who spoke on the significance of the judgment as it relates to future practice with petroleum PSA’s
Audrey Matura Shepherd:
The court has said that these contracts are null and void. So what happens next? Everyone one of those oil companies cannot do anything. None of them can continue any seismic testing; none of them can continue anything under that contract. We were given an injunction; an injunction means that it stops. Let me tell you, we would be one of those organizations that will guard and if we have come to this court room everyday to bring another ruling against those people, we will make sure that this law will be obeyed, because let me tell you what happens in this country – many times the court gives ruling and people in Government and in authority think that they can undermine the court system and the people sit back and that’s not going to happen. I am calling on Belizeans, if they make an attempt to that that, this country will go on mass protest, because if we are in a democracy, the legislator made a law – you saw that the ruling was based on the Environmental Act – it is saying that there was an intent, that the environments should be protected and if you are to do any development; it doesn’t mean you can’t develop. There are processes in place and these processes must be followed.
Matura Shepherd was magnanimous in victory.
Audrey Matura Shepherd;
It is an historic day for Belize, it is not about OCEANA; it is for this country. I am hoping that this judgment will give Belizeans the strength they need to know that not everything Government does they have to sit back and take it. We have a judicial system and I have been trying to educate people for a long time and explain to them that democracy only works when we the people use the system and the judiciary is a very important part of that system. To me this ruling today is a victory for the country. It is a victory for democracy and it definitely a victory for the people of this nation and especially our barrier reef that cannot speak for itself and all those beautiful fish that we take for granted will always be there. It is an intricate part of our cultural identity. It is a wonderful day; I’m sure you all see the excitement on our faces. This decision also vindicates the position of the people when we had our People’s Referendum, when 96% of the referendum said they didn’t want off shore 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 the thing is we have been exonerated today. Belizeans can celebrate because you are people of the reef.
But she still had sharp words for those who attempted to prove the validity of the PSA’s.
Audrey Matura Shepherd;
These contracts according to this ruling, did not go through the proper process because remember what the judge said in the ruling also, he said that remember two years ago when I got on TV and I said that it was violating the Petroleum Act, Section 11, where it clearly says – When you qualify for a contract, they found that these companies did not demonstrate what the law required, that they qualify for these contracts. This is a huge decision. If I had to go through each point, we would stay here all day. I think what is important for people to know is that finally our position has been exonerated.
Additionally, the court ordered that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) be done before any future PSA’s are granted. This afternoon the Coalition in a release said it “applaud(s) the judiciary in ensuring that the rule of law is applied consistently” and added that it is seeking legal interpretation of the judgment as it relates to Providence Energy Ltd. and its proposal to carry out seismic surveys and exploratory wells in its concession area which includes offshore and coastal protected areas including the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. As well, the ruling could be a precedent for onshore contracts in protected areas. An added complication is that several of the contracts have either expired or been terminated. That is the view of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology and Public Utilities which this evening announced that it would appeal the decision. According to the Ministry, Miles, Petro Belize and Sol’s agreements were terminated in April of 2012 for breaches of the agreements and law, while Island’s PSA expired in May of 2012. The others are still in effect and the judgment does affect them. The Ministry’s release also pointed out that all the contracts were signed by the Musa administration in their term of office – but Court decisions bind all Governments of Belize regardless of political party.