With a U.S. District Court in San Diego dismissing a lawsuit last month, Sempra Energy's liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal along the Pacific Coast of North Baja California in Mexico is free of any legal challenges for the time being as a similar challenge to Sempra LNG is dormant in a Mexican court, pending a new hearing date.

In the U.S. decision federal District Court Judge Janis Sammartino said the plaintiff, Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie, wrongly singled out Sempra for actions taken by the Mexican government. The judge called the San Diego-based energy company "one step removed" from any misconduct. Neither side in the case announced the ruling, which dates back to Dec. 1 last year.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday a Sempra LNG spokesperson told NGI that the Mexican court case cannot have a new hearing date set until Sanchez Ritchie has been served, which in Mexico must be done by the court. "The court has not been able to find Sanchez Ritchie to serve him," the spokesperson said.

Although the U.S. case was dismissed, Sempra has heard from Sanchez Ritchie's attorney that the plaintiff plans to "present additional comments" (presumably to the court). The plaintiff's attorney, Kirk Hulett, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in mid-December that the U.S. court dismissal was "technical," and he vowed to file an amended complaint to remedy deficiencies cited by the court.

On July 6 last year a hearing in a federal district court in Mexico ruled in Sempra Energy's favor but did not end the bitter legal dispute. Sanchez Ritchie continued to seek 250 acres adjacent to the site, Energia Costa Azul, that he claims to own (see Daily GPI, July 9, 2010). The court so far has refused to suspend the LNG plant's operating permits; at one point it ordered another court hearing, set for last Aug. 5, but that was subsequently canceled.

Sempra senior executives have downplayed the meandering legal actions, attributing them to "some enterprising individuals who are trying to exhort money from us, claiming they are entitled to that land." They told financial audiences several times last year that no court action or decision would jeopardize the operation of the Costa Azul plant, and none has so far. Sempra CEO Don Felsinger said he expected the issue "to resolve itself on its own and not have any impact on the plant operations."

During the legal battle that surfaced early last year, Sempra has alleged that 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 has repeatedly alleged that Sempra acquired his land illegally and is therefore in violation of its permits to operate the LNG terminal.

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