Environmental Impact Assessments, Contract, Permits, Cooperation, Damages
Sarstoon - Temash National Park is an area in the south-eastern part of Belize, declared a national park in 1994 under s. 3 of the National Parks System Act. SATIIM was a body corporate. The objectives for which the representatives associated themselves included among others, to co-manage the National Park with the Government in harmony with the aspirations of the indigenous peoples of the area, and to ensure the participation of the indigenous communities and to support their needs and priorities. The cooperation between SATIIM and the Forest Department was based on a "co-management agreement". On 14.11.2005, SATIIM learnt that US Capital Energy Belize Ltd. had entered a contract with the Government that would allow the Company to carry out exploration for oil work in an area that included the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. Subsequently a permit was issued to the Company to carry out seismic surveys. SATIIM objected to the contract and the issuance of the permit on the grounds that: SATIIM did not take part any decision to grant permit to the Company to enter the park, and allowing seismic surveys for oil exploration would be unlawful and would be scientifically destructive to ecosystems in the park. Apart from that, according to the Environmental Protection Regulations, seismic testing was an aspect of oil exploration and required an environmental impact assessment. The Department at first argued that the method to be used in the seismic surveys would not cause any environmental damage, but later changed its mind and conceded that oil exploration activities which include seismic surveys required environmental impact assessment. The Company had since "applied for approval to do environmental impact assessment." The Department submitted that the project was of significant economic value to the country and that the Company had already spent over $1.5 million; therefore the court should exercise its discretion to decline quashing the permit. The court emphasized that oil exploration was deemed by law to significantly affect the environment. The seismic surveys for which permission was given were part of the oil exploration project. No environmental impact assessment had been carried out in respect to the surveys. The permission given for and the commencement of the seismic surveys were therefore in breach of ss. 20 and 21 of the Environmental Protection Act, and were unlawful. Furthermore, the court analyzed whether the decision granting permission was in breach of the substantive legitimate expectation of SATIIM with whom the government had agreement to co-manage the national park, and if so, whether an overriding public interest would be justification. It also interpreted the National Parks System Act, focusing on the literal meaning of specific words and the natural grammatical meaning of sentences as well as by reading an Act as a whole. Finally the court addressed the question how it should exercise its discretion. It considered the following: The company had expanded $1.5 million before the case was filed. On the other hand SATIIM had so far lost nothing as the result of the permission given. In the course of the proceedings, the Company had engaged experts to carry out the necessary environment impact assessment. However, a decision not to quash the permission was likely to be misunderstood to prejudge the result of the environmental impact assessment. Moreover, allowing seismic surveys to proceed when the result of the environmental impact assessment was not yet known allowed the Company to spend more money which would be lost in the event the environmental impact assessment did not favor the carrying out of seismic surveys. Therefore it exercised its discretion in favor of quashing the permission given.