December 2, 2013 / 10:16 PM / in 4 years

U.S. justices challenge Argentina in gas company arbitration case

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday weighed British company BG Group Plc’s bid to reinstate a $185.3 million arbitration award against Argentina that an appeals court threw out.

Several justices voiced doubts when Argentina argued that BG should have sued in Argentina’s courts first. BG, a natural gas exploration and distribution company, said in court papers it did not wish to take that route because Argentina had restricted access to its courts and sought to punish investors that filed lawsuits.

The case concerns whether BG should recover the money on the grounds that a decision by the Argentine government in 2002 to freeze gas prices breached a 1993 treaty between Britain and Argentina.

The 1993 United Kingdom-Argentina treaty was designed to encourage investment by foreign companies such as Reading-based BG.

Argentina imposed the price freeze shortly after it announced a sovereign debt default of roughly $100 billion in 2001.

BG challenged the freeze, saying it reduced the value of its roughly 45 percent stake in Argentina’s Metrogas SA. BG sold its stake in Metrogas earlier this year to YPF SA and Integra Gas Distribution LLC.

The International Chamber of Commerce International Court of Arbitration, an arbitration panel in Washington, D.C., concluded in 2007 that because Argentina had by emergency decree restricted access to its courts, it would create an “absurd and unreasonable result” to read the treaty literally and require BG to go through the courts first. A federal district court judge in Washington upheld the award in a 2011 decision.

But a federal appeals court ruled for Argentina a year later, saying that BG should have first tried to sue in Argentina and then wait 18 months for a ruling, as required by the treaty, before resorting to arbitration.

During Monday’s one-hour oral arguments, a majority of justices expressed skepticism about Argentina’s position.

“Your whole argument gives me intellectual whiplash,” Justice Anthony Kennedy told Argentina’s attorney, Jonathan Blackman.

Justice Samuel Alito questioned the value of BG’s filing a lawsuit in Argentina when it knew that the matter would eventually go to arbitration anyway.

“What is achieved by that?” he asked Blackman.

Blackman responded that all BG had to do was file a lawsuit and wait 18 months. Then it would have met the treaty requirements and could then enter arbitration.

A ruling is due by the end of June. The Supreme Court could yet hear another case related to the Argentina default. Argentina is expected to appeal a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that requires the country to pay $1.33 billion to bondholders who refused to participate in two debt restructurings following the default.

The case argued on Monday is BG Group v. Argentina, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-138.

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