San Diego-based Sempra Energy's lawyers were told Aug. 6 that a Mexican federal district court in North Baja California "unofficially" was notified that an original Ensenada judge was granted his recusal request due to "conflict of interest" in the ongoing legal battle between Sempra and a would-be owner of 220 acres adjacent to the Sempra Energia Costa Azul liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal.

A spokesperson for Sempra LNG told NGI that because the court has not received official notice, a new date for a hearing in the case cannot be set. The court canceled a hearing scheduled for Aug. 5, two days after Sempra CEO Don Felsinger told analysts on a second quarter earnings conference call that he thought the company will prevail in the legal fight and the litigants are attempting to "extort" money from the global energy holding company.

Official word on the judge's recusal should come "any day now," the Sempra LNG spokesperson said. "After the court receives the official notice, it will cancel the old date and transfer the file to a new court [the 11th District Court in Ensenada]," the spokesperson said.

On the earnings call, Felsinger said the issue is "not one of much importance. There are some enterprising individuals who are trying to exhort money from us, claiming they are entitled to that land. That will be resolved separately, and I do not expect any court action or decision will jeopardize the operation of the plant," said Felsinger, noting there are upcoming hearings Thursday and stretching out into the next few months. "The issue will resolve itself on its own and will not have any impact on the plant operations."

During the legal battle that surfaced earlier this year, Sempra has alleged that the plaintiff, Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie, has a criminal record and a cozy relationship with the federal district judge, Andre Nalda Jose Neals, who has been instrumental in Sanchez Ritchie's legal pleading. In contrast, Sanchez Ritchie alleges that Sempra acquired his land illegally and is therefore in violation of its permits to operate the Energia Costa Azul LNG terminal (see NGI, July 12).

A court hearing in late July was supposed to finally resolve whether Sanchez Ritchie would get his way and the Mexican courts force Sempra to stop its LNG operations, but it was canceled.

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