A hearing in a federal district court in Mexico Tuesday will clarify but not entirely resolve the bitter legal dispute involving Sempra Energy’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility along the North Baja California Pacific Coast and a would-be landowner seeking 250 acres adjacent to the site. It will take a second Mexican court proceeding July 28 to begin to clear the air, but that outcome could be appealed.

Meanwhile, Sempra is alleging that its antagonist, 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, which the San Diego-based energy holding company contends is designed shake it down for an eventual pay off.

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. The hearing on July 28 is supposed to finally resolve whether Sanchez Ritchie gets his way and the Mexican courts force Sempra to stop its LNG operations.

The complicated process unfolding in the Mexican court system has made understanding the dispute that much more difficult. On its website, Sempra explains the current status as a case in which Sanchez Ritchie has filed an “amparo,” a procedure under Mexican law by which a person asks a court to order the government to take some action. “Here, Mr. Sanchez Ritchie’s amparo asks the court to order the governmental authorities to revoke the permits issued to the Costa Azul LNG terminal,” Sempra said.

This is the request that will be addressed by the court on July 28. In the meantime, Sanchez Ritchie also requested the court to order Mexican agencies to “provisionally suspend” the LNG terminal operating permits, even before it decides the merits of the amparo.

Sempra said the judge’s June 17 provisional suspension order (see Daily GPI, June 30) granted Sanchez Ritchie’s request, and set a date of June 22 to decide whether the provisional order should remain in place until the merits of the amparo are decided on July 28. However, through Sempra’s counter action the June 17 order was stayed — and later overturned on appeal — and the judge postponed the June 22 hearing until Tuesday’s session.

Sempra has distributed a translation of research information from a Mexican source (El Informador de BC) showing that Sanchez Ritchie and the judge who made the June 17 ruling have been involved in legal matters going back to Oct. 16, 2001, when the same judge ordered Sanchez Ritchie released from a jail where he was being held on charges of committing fraud. Earlier this year the same judge allegedly ordered Sanchez Ritchie released from any liability related to some legal proceedings filed against him.

While Sanchez Ritchie’s Los Angeles-based spokesperson contends that this is misrepresentation of the facts by Sempra, the U.S. energy company is just as adamant that it will prevail.

“We believe that Mr. Sanchez Ritchie and his financial backers are misusing the judicial, political and regulatory processes of Mexico in an attempt to extract money from our company, and we are confident that the Mexican authorities ultimately will see these efforts for what they are,” a Sempra spokesperson said.

Potential outcomes from the July 28 hearing include the judge granting Sanchez Ritchie’s request, which could result in the revocation of Energía Costa Azul’s operating permits, or denying the amparo, Sempra said. “In either outcome, both parties would have the right to appeal.

“Sempra LNG, unlike Mr. Sanchez Ritchie, purchased the land from the titleholders of the land and has recorded its title to the land. Mr. Sanchez Ritchie never purchased the land and instead seeks to assert an ownership claim by virtue of squatting on the property,” Sempra said.

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