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Article by Terry Nolan, Deputy Managing Director, Shell Ireland: A lot done on Corrib but a lot more to do

By: Terry Nolan
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The last six months have seen steady progress in the Corrib gas project but the old rifts persist, concedes Terry Nolan, Deputy Managing Director, Shell Ireland.

IT’S now six months since I took up the post of Deputy Managing Director with Shell Ireland and an opportune time for reflection. I returned to Ireland in June – pleased to be back home after 25 years working abroad with Shell and looking forward to joining the Corrib project, despite its troubled history.

I felt it was important to be based in Erris so that I would get to know the people in the area who are living close to the Corrib development and to under-stand their concerns.

I’ve had a warm welcome from the people here – plenty of advice and also some rebukes for the way Shell handled (or mishandled) things in the past. I would like to point out that I personally never experienced any unpleasantness as a result of my position with Shell, despite all that has happened in the past. It soon became clear to me that the Corrib dispute was more bitter, more deep-rooted and more complex than I had anticipated.

When I started in the summer I hoped that we could resolve differences through dialogue. I had thought following Shell’s apology for the hurt and division caused by the jailing of the Rossport Five we could all try to move on and find some common ground for a solution. I also felt that being Irish, being new to Corrib and not having any baggage from the past, I would be able to build some bridges and help repair some of the damage. I subsequently found that, sadly, there had been a complete breakdown in trust and that dialogue with those who opposed the development would be quite difficult. Positions had become entrenched and reconciliation would not be easy.

One of the problems, I believe, is that Shell has not been able to dispel some of the misinformation and misperceptions about the Corrib Gas project. Our attempts to assure people about the safety of the proposed development have not been successful.

For example, we have not been able to convince some people that processing gas onshore is a lot safer than doing it offshore. When the country was hit by severe storms recently, I went out to Doonamoe on the Mullet Peninsula to see for myself the conditions along the Atlantic coastline during a bad storm. Huge waves lashed the coast and sea spray was rising over a 100 feet onto the road. In the distance, the sea spray was rising to the top of the Eagle Island Lighthouse, which is 200 feet above sea level. Anybody seeing the awesome power of an Atlantic gale would realize that offshore gas-processing would be much more hazardous than on a sheltered site on dry land.

The technology exists today to safely develop Corrib gas with onshore processing and I have no doubt that this is the best development option. If the Kinsale Field was being developed today, it would be developed as an onshore processing facility. Fields like Corrib are now being developed around the world with onshore processing. A tragic example of offshore safety hazards is the fact that the vast majority of accidental deaths in Shell’s North Sea operations in the past 20 years have been due to helicopter crashes. On the other hand, there has never been a fatal accident at any Shell’s onshore gas processing plants in the UK, nor has there been a gas pipeline failure.

I have also worked for a number of years in Holland which is one of Europe’s biggest gas producers. I have first-hand experience of what is needed to operate these plants successfully in built-up areas, close to houses and communities. Shell now operates over 50 gas-processing plants in Holland. Around 30 of these gas plants are in the Groningen Field, Western Europe’s largest onshore gasfield.

They have been operating successfully since 1970 and they have excellent safety and environmental records. I believe the safety and environmental concerns about the Bellanaboy location are greatly exaggerated, but also accept that it has been a failing of Shell that we have not satisfactorily addressed the genuine concerns of local people. I’m convinced that there would be a lot less worry and anxiety if there was an open and honest debate about the issues. I was very pleased with the attendance at our ‘Open Days’ in Belmullet last month. There was a good attendance both by people who support and oppose the proposed development. This was the first event of its kind in almost three years and certainly a good forum for information exchange and discussion. We now plan to hold ‘Open Days’ in other towns in Mayo in January so that as many people as possible have an opportunity to express their views and concerns.

Another thing people told me when I started was that Erris had not seen enough benefits from the Corrib development. I accept this criticism and I’m committed to employing local workers wherever possible and to offering business opportunities to contractors and suppliers in Erris. The Bellanaboy site now supports 170 full-time jobs. I am pleased to say that 85 per cent of the workers are from Erris.

Most of the services at Bellanaboy are now provided by contractors and suppliers from Erris. I intend to continue this policy of using local workers and local suppliers next year when peat haulage and full-scale construction begins. When we start full-scale construction of the Bellanaboy terminal next autumn, job numbers will rise to 700 and will remain around that level until the terminal is completed at the end of 2009.

Thereafter, there will be 100 permanent high quality jobs in Erris. Seventy of these will be on the terminal and the remainder in a local support office. As well as those jobs, experience in other countries has shown that up to 100 other indirect jobs will be created. I believe the benefits of Corrib are now being felt in Erris and this will become increasingly evident in 2007 and beyond.

I look back on my first six months with some satisfaction about the progress that’s been made but also disappointment that we have not been able to heal the rift in the community. I hadn’t realized, six months ago, just how much division Corrib had caused. The division is very regrettable. I now realize that wounds are deep and will take a long time to heal. For my part, I am determined to do everything we in Shell can to improve the situation through better communication, by listening more and taking a very different approach than we’ve done in the past. We cannot change the past, but we have learned from it. In the coming months, I will continue our efforts to reassure people about the safety of the Corrib project and to deliver real benefits to Erris. I hope that people in the area can now see that Shell is adopting a different approach and that we can move forward with the Corrib development in partnership with the local community. I believe we’re making progress gradually but we still have a long way to go.

http://www.westernpeople.ie/news/story.asp?j=34663

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