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Irish Times: Corrib battle needs political leadership

Corrib battle needs political leadership
John McManus
Irish Times; May 08, 2006

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Business Opinion : It's pretty clear from the report that the pipeline proposed by Shell was safe. So what went wrong?

Events have once again conspired in a most annoying way to prove the Taoiseach right. Two weeks ago he told the Institute of Engineers that nuclear power was a dead duck as far Ireland was concerned, not because it is inherently unsafe, but simply because the Irish people could not be convinced otherwise.

Fast forward to last week and the publication of the independent review of the controversial Corrib pipeline. Noel Dempsey, the minister behind this particular circus was gracious enough to acknowledge the main finding of the report, which was that “proper consideration was given to safety issues in the selection process for the preferred design option and locations of the landfall, pipeline route and terminal”.

This translates as saying that the pipeline as originally proposed by Shell is safe when judged by the same yardstick used to assess the thousands of kilometres of gas pipelines that crisscross Ireland and other countries.

Amongst the consultants other findings were that conservative assumptions were used in the engineering design. They also dismissed the suggestion that the Corrib field gas is somehow unique and possesses unique engineering challenges.

Equally, concerns about dangers of building a pipeline through peat were shown to have been adequately addressed in the original design.

The report has basically upheld what Shell were saying when the controversy over the safety of the pipeline first surfaced. Which, of course, despite Shell's mixed record, is not surprising. What is surprising is why anybody, including Dempsey, thought a massive international oil company like Shell would put a multimillion dollar project at risk by building a pipeline on the cheap in the wrong place.

Luckily enough, Dempsey's independent consultants have provided him with a fig leaf of sorts. Namely a conclusion to the effect that if the recommendations of the report are carried out then the pipeline will be constructed to an appropriate standard and will be fit for purpose.

There is an implication in this statement that some serious flaws might exist, but when you look for what these recommendations might be, only one of them appears to be of any substance. It is that steps should be taken to ensure that the pressure in the pipeline does not exceed 144 bar.

But, read the report in a bit more detail and your see that intended normal pressure in the pipeline is in the range of 100-120 bar, although it is designed to withstand pressures of 345 bar if necessary. The consultants also note that “the unusually high design pressure resulted from a cautious approach to the pipeline design such that the pipeline is designed to withstand the highest pressure it could possibly experience, despite the higher cost of pipeline construction”. Notwithstanding that, the risks associated with operating the pipeline at 345 bar, should Shell ever need to do so, are within acceptable limits.

It is an over simplification to say that what occurred in Rossport was the basic failure of Shell to get its position across in a credible fashion and the equally significant failure of those leading the protesters to listen.

It is clear from the reaction of the protesters to the report published this week that the report makes very little difference. Shell appear to have accepted this by indicating a willingness to look at re-routing the pipeline.

The issue is manifestly not about the safety of the pipeline and never really was. The simple fact is that the local people, or some local people, don't want it. You can speculate endlessly as to what the reason is, but presumably it is founded in a genuinely held sense of grievance, which has found its outlet in anger that a pipeline that will make Shell millions can be built through their land without any benefit to them.

Which all works to neatly underline the Taoiseach's rather fatalistic remarks to the Institute of Engineers about nuclear power. To paraphrase his comments on nuclear power: it is one thing to say the Corrib pipeline is safe, “but another to ever convince anybody”.

It is a pity that the Taoiseach did not stick around to hear the comments of some of the speakers who came after him. They included Luis Echavarri, the director general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's nuclear energy agency.

He made the rather simple point that political leadership is what sells difficult decisions. “Public opinion is not an independent element. If public leaders say we don't need it, what do you think people are going to think?” he asked.

It's pretty clear now that what the Rossport stand-off needed, and still needs, is some political leadership and not a consultants report costing thousands that told us something that we knew already and makes no difference.

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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