San Diego-based Sempra Energy has drawn increasing governmental and business support in Mexico in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt by the mayor of Ensenada, North Baja California, to seize the U.S. energy holding company's Energia Costa Azul liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal. Operations at the facility have continued without interruption.

On Tuesday a small group of Mexican Army troops were on the LNG site, and the government said they will remain for "as long as it takes to secure the facility," a Sempra spokesperson told NGI.

Mexican federal and state officials quickly moved to thwart what they called an illegal power grab by newly elected Ensenada Mayor Enrique Pelayo, who a local newspaper columnist labeled as "old school" and wanting to be "another Hugo Chavez," referring to the Venezuelan leader who has nationalized the energy and other industries in his country.

It has been reiterated by Mexico's federal Comision Reguladora de Energia (CRE) that Sempra LNG holds all of the local, state and federal permits it needs to operate the Costa Azul terminal. The assault from the mayor comes after Sempra appeared to have won all of its court battles against a disgruntled adjacent property owner who has tried for several years to shut down the LNG facility (see Daily GPI, Jan. 20).

A little after 4 p.m. PST Friday, what Sempra described as a "well organized effort" unfolded with a large force of city police and SWAT teams moving into the Costa Azul facility with news media accompanying them. The law enforcement personnel entered Sempra's facilities by force, according to Sempra LNG's spokesperson.

"Our operations teams maintained their positions at all times and continued to operate the facility as trained without abandoning their posts," said the spokesperson, who added that the local police squads placed closure notices inside the facility. Those notices have since been removed.

"The arbitrary and capricious actions of the mayor were taken...without regard to the safety of the facility, in direct violation of a federal court order, and in spite of receiving a letter from CRE warning the mayor that such actions are outside his jurisdiction."

Noting that the local officials acted unilaterally in attempting to shut the LNG facility, the Mexico Ministry of the Economy said the closure of the plant would have affected gas supplies to local residential and industrial areas in Baja California. "The rapid intervention of the [Mexican] federal government, in coordination with the state government and company, prevented any damage to the company's operations," the ministry said.

In December a U.S. District Court in San Diego dismissed a lawsuit by Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie, leaving the plaintiff's legal actions that have been ongoing on both sides of the international border in limbo. A similar challenge to Sempra LNG has been dormant in a Mexican court, pending a new hearing date. In the U.S. decision federal District Court Judge Janis Sammartino said Sanchez Ritchie wrongly singled out Sempra for actions taken by the Mexican government.

Sempra contends that the Ensenada mayor's actions last Friday were part of a well orchestrated effort "by a series of individuals" who allegedly are only interested in "extracting millions of dollars from the company."

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