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Irish Times: Learning lessons from Corrib gas: ‘Shell behaved in a bully-boy fashion’

Published: Nov 28, 2006

Gas from the Corrib field, off north Mayo, is not expected to flow until 2009. That may appear to be a long time away but, in terms of the work required in building a pipeline and production terminal, it represents an extremely tight schedule. And with local protests continuing, there is no certainty targets will be met. Because of that, the sooner an alternative pipeline route is agreed with local landowners, the better.

The Government’s initial handling of issues surrounding development of the gas field was as arrogant and incompetent as the stance adopted to local protesters by Shell. No added-value was envisaged for the local economy because the processed gas would be piped directly to Galway and onwards to Dublin.

A government contract was signed for that project even before planning permission was granted for an on-shore production terminal. But, when five men were jailed on the application of Shell, for opposing a gas pipeline near their homes on safety grounds, public opinion shifted dramatically. Belatedly, the Government and Shell began a process of public consultation and conciliation.

Opinion is still divided at local level. But events of the past month, when protesters came into conflict with the Garda SIochana for trying to prevent workers gaining access to the Bellanaboy terminal site, would suggest the balance has tipped in favour of the project.

In this employment black spot, jobs have a special resonance. The incident prompted Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny to condemn the blockade and to urge the community to support the forces of law and order. A further protest was cancelled.

Limited progress has been made since Peter Cassells was sent to the area as a Government mediator. Shell expressed a willingness to reroute the gas pipeline in order to address local safety concerns. But there is deadlock on the issue of where a production terminal should be sited. Opponents want it to be moved off-shore. Shell says this would be less safe, less environmental friendly and uneconomic.

Ireland imports nearly 90 per cent of its gas from Russia. And, at a time when security of supply has become an issue of international concern, gas from the Corrib field could meet 60 per cent of our needs. Such considerations are of grave importance at a national level. But their significance should not result in transparent planning procedures and the rights of communities being ignored. At the same time, protesters must remain within the law.

The Bellanaboy terminal was properly sanctioned by An Bord Pleanala. But a Minister approved the contested pipeline. In its rush to bring the gas ashore, the Government ignored local needs and the concerns of individuals. Shell behaved in a bully-boy fashion. Steps have now been taken to correct that situation; to address local anxieties and to provide an economic benefit. Let us hope a lesson has been learned.

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