Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Environmental Law Framework and Developments in Oman

Like the other member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman faces many environmental challenges. Some are well known, such as water scarcity, land desertification, and pollution of soil and water by the oil and gas industry. The GCC countries also face emerging and less regulated challenges such as increased demands for energy and electricity, urbanisation, climate change, increased construction, and unprecedented amounts of debris.

However, among the GCC countries and in the region Oman is considered progressive and highly engaged in the protection of its environment. Oman has been working to preserve its diverse flora and fauna for several decades, being the first Arab state in 1974 to create a special government body dedicated to environmental issues.

These initiatives are vital to maintain, as Oman’s economy is heavily reliant on the extraction and production of hydrocarbons such as crude oil and natural gas and liquefied natural gas, both industries which carry significant risks to the surrounding environment. Oman’s increasing participation in the tourism and hospitality sector also introduces environmental stressors.

Oman has ratified many international treaties related to environmental protection, including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UN Framework Convention on Climatic Change, and the UN Agreement on Prevention of Desertification in Countries Facing Severe Arid Conditions. Oman has also confirmed its intention to sign the Paris Convention, adopted at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference held in Paris in December 2015. As part of this intention, Oman submitted an action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2% from 2020 to 2030. 

Despite these international commitments, as a matter of law, industrial projects in Oman are not required to comply with international standards. Omani laws merely require that an activity must conform to the relevant domestic legislation, some of which may not necessarily conform to international standards. In the absence of domestic standards, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (Environment Ministry) can require compliance with international standards.

The Basic Law of Oman (Sultani Decree 101/1996, as amended by Sultani Decree 99/2011) sets out the protection of the environment and the prevention of pollution as a social principle, allocating it as a state responsibility. Oman’s environmental regime is primarily regulated by the Law on the Conservation of the Environment and Combating of Pollution (Sultani Decree 114/2001), while three Sultani Decrees and two Ministerial Decisions further regulate wildlife protection and nature conservation.

Oman’s laws mandate strict penalties for the release of environmental pollutants and discharge of effluents, both on the land and in the sea. Oman generally follows the “polluter pays” principle, with penalties imposed on the person or company directly causing environmental damage. For example, in 2012 the Oman Cement Company SAOG was required by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to shut down a production line and to contribute OMR 2.25 million as compensation for villages that were environmentally affected by its operations.

It is noteworthy for companies that compensation may be ordered as a result of executive intervention, rather than through judicial determination, and that the Commercial Companies Law holds the directors and managers of a company personally liable for any infractions of the law by a company.

In May 2017, the Environment Ministry issued further rules governing its issuance of environmental permits, including provisions about the methods of securing environmental activity permits and the penalties for violators. The rules divide environmental activities into three categories:

  • Category A: Activities of great environmental effect, including 255 activities. Obtaining a permit in this category requires the preparation of a study of environmental effects by an approved consultation office in accordance with certain principles and regulations.
  • Category B: Activities located in industrial estates, industrial ports and free zones, comprising 504 activities. Obtaining a permit in this category also requires the preparation of a study of environmental effects.
  • Category C: Activities of minor environmental effect. Permit applicants in this category may be able to self-certify regarding potential environmental effects, though implementation is still unclear. 

Oman has taken several clear steps towards good environmental governance over the past few decades. However, the allocation of authority between executive and judicial branches is unclear, as is the liability within Oman of individuals and companies in contravention of international environmental laws. Strengthening the role of various stakeholders (NGOs, the private sector, local communities, etc.) would also improve monitoring and reporting, important steps in achieving Oman’s national strategy of environmental preservation.