LNG project permit awaits ruling

National, Normal

The National

ALMOST a month after early works under FEED for the PNG LNG project in Southern Highlands province was halted by a court injunction, the National Court will tomorrow decide whether to continue that injunction, or lift it and allow the multi-billion kina project to continue.
Plaintiffs in this court proceeding, which is capable of derailing this world class project, are villagers who own the land at PDL1 in Hides near Tari, where the bulk of the raw gas for the project is found.
The lead plaintiffs are Hare Hengi of the Arua clan and Thomas Kurubu of the Wita clan.
At the centre of their court action was their contention that the Government did not have
an environmental policy within which this project could proceed.
They claimed this LNG project was operating in a “policy vacuum” which violated the
Environment Act of the country.
On Aug 10, they successfully obtained an injunction which stopped the Department of Environment and Conservation secretary Dr Wari Iamo from issuing an environment permit to Esso Highlands Ltd, the ExxonMobil subsidiary operating the LNG project.
Esso had already submitted an environment impact study to the National Government in a grand ceremony at Parliament House, but were later slapped with an injunction as the villagers went to court.
The defendants in the proceeding are the Department of Petroleum and Energy, the State, Esso Highlands and others.
Yesterday, lawyers for both sides appeared before Deputy Chief Justice Gibbs Salika to argue their case.
Lawyers for the defendants, which include Greg Egan QC from Australia, argued that the injunction should be lifted because the case had no basis. Papers filed in court by Dr Iamo said the villagers actions were not supported by law.
But lawyer for the plaintiff, Robbie Yansion of Poro Lawyers, argued that the law required the Government to have a policy in place for the project to proceed.
Mr Yansion argued that while his clients supported the entire LNG project, it must proceeding within the confines of the law.
If Justice Salika agrees with the plaintiffs, he will extend the injunction while the matter goes for a full trial. If he throws the case out, the landowners would consider other legal options.
Any further delay in the FEED or early works would jeopardise the schedule of the LNG project. This comes at a time when there is a lot of uncertainly about the venue of the license based development forums that are to take place this month.
The law requires the DPE to conduct licensed based forums following the completion of the Benefits Sharing Agreement, which was held in Kokopo in April/May.
The licensed-based forums were crucial because international financial institutions will only release money to fund the project if these forums were successfully completed.
A final investment decision for the US$17 billion project will be made in December.
Meanwhile, Government officials insist the project is on track.