ISLAMABAD – Once bitten twice shy! The chief judge of the country has applied breaks to the award of a multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) contract by the departing government, understandably with the rental power projects (RPPs) scam and unfair award of a previous LNG contract in mind.

Heading a three-member bench, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on Monday issued stay order against all the proceeding at all the forums for awarding LNG contracts until a final judgment of the Supreme Court. Their main concern is ‘transparency’ and that Public Procurement Rules are strictly adhered to while awarding the contacts, the chief justice said while hearing a suo moto taken on the note of SC Registrar and the press clippings on the issue.

The counsel for petroleum ministry, secretary finance, Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) managing director and representatives of SSGC and Engro Pakistan appeared before the bench and sought time for filing the reply. The court issued notice to Economic Affairs secretary and Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) ex-chairman Waqar A Malik as they did not appear in person or through their counsels.

During the proceeding, the court said that according to the media the ECC (economic coordination committee) has failed to take a decision on award of a multi-billion dollar contract for import of 400 million cubic feet of LNG and left the matter to the federal cabinet to take this ‘difficult decision’.

Reportedly, an immediate meeting of the federal cabinet was likely to be convened early next week to resolve the controversy after some members of the ECC questioned the summary submitted by the petroleum ministry to declare Pakistan Gasport consortium as lowest bidder by pronouncing another bidder as non-compliant.

The chief justice advised counsel for SSGC Anwar Mansoor and counsel for petroleum ministry Salman Akram Raja that as the present government has successfully completed its tenure so the incumbent cabinet should put in a trouble and it is better the next government decides this matter.

SSGC Board Chairman Waqar A Malik had tendered his resignation on 7-3-2013 after the board was asked to declare Gasport Consortium as successful bidder. He maintains that even though Engro Terminal had quoted two separate benchmarks for LNG import price, its final bid price calculated by the SSGC’s bid committee was on the lower side when compared with Gasport.

The court noted that a sub-committee appointed by the ECC to investigate a previous non-professional handling of the LNG import bidding had not completed its job and instead got itself involved in a fresh bidding that was beyond its mandate.

The apex court in its 2010 judgment in a suo moto case had blasted the authorities for causing huge loss to public exchequer through violation of rules in awarding an LNG contract. The court had observed that petroleum ministry and SSGCL had not followed the due process and ignored lowest bids of Fauji Foundation and Multinational Energy firm Vitol in Mashal Project.

The CJ asked the SSCG counsel, “Why your client is in a hurry.” Awar Mansoor replied they were not in hurry and they were not processing the contract at the moment. He, however, sought time to file a detailed reply. The court on the insistence of the parties adjourned the case until March 18.