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Bitter dispute over gas pipeline

BBC NEWS WORLD EDITION: Bitter dispute over gas pipeline

Wednesday 3 August 2005

By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC Northern Ireland reporter in Erris, County Mayo

Some local people in one of Ireland’s remotest communities are pitched against petrochemical giant Shell, in a bitter dispute over the routing of a gas pipeline from the Atlantic Ocean to County Mayo.

A crowd stands with placards outside the site of Shell’s proposed gas refinery at Bellanaboy in Erris, County Mayo, where locals in one of Ireland’s remotest areas have been manning a daily blockade.

They are protesting against a high-pressure pipeline to pump unrefined gas from the Corrib Field in the Atlantic Ocean to the new terminal inland, saying it poses a “serious safety and environmental risk”, a claim Shell strenuously denies.

Since five local local men went to prison at the end of June for obstructing construction work in breach of a court order granted to Shell, the dispute has intensified.

As they walk the route of the pipeline which will pump unrefined gas at 120 times atmospheric pressure just 70m from some homes, the wives of the jailed men seem unlikely opponents faced against one of the world’s biggest corporations.

Mary Corduff, whose husband Willie is in jail, said they feel they have no option but to protest.

“We fear for our lives, fear of the proposed pipeline coming through our village and putting us all in danger.

“Anybody who feels like that would have to take a stand like this. We have no choice,” she said.

Inside the vast terminal site, the steel pipeline snakes across wild bogland.

Lines of trucks sit idle in an almost ghostly silence due to the locals’ blockade which Shell says is costing it £70,000 a day.

Shell terminal operations manager Mark Carrigey said the pipeline is completely safe.

“We are building world class facilities to the highest safety standards. It’s been through a very lengthy and rigorous process.

“It has been reviewed by independent experts and they’ve all given it a clean bill of health,” he said.

Locals want the gas to be refined offshore, which they claim would mean the pipeline carries what they say is more stable refined gas at lower pressures than what’s proposed.

Mary Corduff said this would be safer.

“We want Shell to refine this gas out at sea and carry it through our area clean and safe and at a lot less pressure than is proposed.

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask. The only reason it’s being brought inland now is to make a bigger profit for the company,” she said.

Tax relief

But Mr Carrigey said refining offshore would make little difference.

“If we do have an offshore platform, we still need a pipe that takes the gas ashore,” he said.

“We still need an onshore terminal, to polish off and remove final bits of liquids before the gas goes into the grid. So essentially we end up with the same situation – an onshore terminal with a pipeline taking gas,” he said.

Natural gas from the Atlantic Corrib field is important to the Republic as its only other source – off Kinsale in Cork – runs out.

Oil firms benefit from tax relief, including concessions introduced by the now disgraced politician and former minister in the 1980s and 1990s, Ray Burke who was later jailed for personal tax evasion.

Local TD Dr Gerry Cowley claims that the Irish state’s priority has been to facilitate the oil company’s needs.

“I think there’s been too much undestanding by the ministers’ officials as to the plight of the oil companies – they accept automatically everything they’re told.

“I think it’s a far too cosy relationship – we need to have some independent means of assessing this information,” he said.

On 1 August, Irish marine and natural resources minister Noel Dempsey ordered Shell to dismantle 3km of pipeline welded, according to the minister, outside the scope of consents granted to the company, breaches Shell describes as “technical”.

He also said Shell will be under closer inspection by a technical group of experts appointed by him to deal with the issue.

But any protestors’ hopes of a change of ministerial heart was dashed the following day when the Mr Dempsey granted Shell permission to construct the offshore section of pipeline.

Mayo is no stranger to protest, the birthplace of the Boycott more than 120 years ago during Land League protests against absentee landlords.

But with Shell’s losses – and local passions – mounting, this dispute looks far from over.


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