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Irish Times: An illusion of local support for Shell or an issue that is closed?

EXTRACT: As for Shell’s assurances of its commitment to safety, a survey by the Financial Times, published last year, shows Shell to be responsible for more employee and contractor deaths from 2003 to 2006 than Exxon and BP combined.

THE ARTICLE

Published: Jul 04, 2007

The Corrib gas project has divided the people of Erris in north Mayo in a deeply bitter and, at times, violent way. One side claims to be defending Ireland’s natural resources from an allegedly rapacious multinational oil giant. The other side claims that the views of locals in favour of the project rarely get heard, but were reflected in the recent election. We asked two local people – one from each side – to state their case.

People in Erris are not speaking their mind and are being intimidated by gardaI, asserts Bob Kavanagh

This piece does not presume to represent the position of the Shell to Sea campaign or to speak on behalf of “the local community”.

I believe the people of Erris to be more than capable of speaking for themselves; a conviction which sadly neither Shell, the authorities nor a large section of the media seem to share. This is a personal perspective informed by my experience of living in the area for the past two years and listening to the concerns of other residents.

The reasons why locals began objecting to the Corrib project when it was first proposed in 2000, and the reasons why that opposition has grown both locally and nationally, are varied. Any attempt to reduce the arguments to one soundbite or another merely clouds the complexity of the issues.

The proximity of the proposed pipeline route to dwellings and the attendant safety risk was one of the first things to cause concern, but this is not the central reason why people oppose the Corrib project. A very real risk is posed to the health and safety of residents by the location of the refinery on land due to the air and water pollution it would emit.

The long-term detrimental impact the refinery would have for those who make their living from fishing, farming and tourism is not offset by the few short-term construction jobs on offer. There is also great concern over the current licensing terms being granted to oil companies and the economic implications of this for the country as a whole.

A concern often expressed by locals has been validated by a Petroleum Affairs Division report from 2006, which shows how new hydrocarbon deposits off the west coast would be developed. It explicitly states that new finds could be refined at the Bellanaboy site or “an adjacent facility”. It is not just one gas terminal people are protesting against but the transformation of the region into a refinery zone.

A source of particular dismay to me is the resignation of many Erris people. I often have conversations with people who are opposed to the project yet decline to speak out because they believe it is pointless. Shell are so powerful, they say, that you cannot prevent the project going ahead no matter how much you protest.

Sadly, their silence is interpreted as consent by those who wish to create the illusion of popular support for Shell and portray the dissenters as a minority. Even some of those locals working on the project have expressed guilt but say they are enticed to stay by bonuses offered to ensure their loyalty.

Of no less concern is the intimidation practised by gardaI in the area. I have been told by more than a few locals that their reason for not openly protesting is that they do not wish to attract the hostile attention of the police which active campaigners have suffered.

The refusal of the authorities to move beyond token efforts to address the reasoned and legitimate concerns of residents has created a deep bitterness and mistrust of the processes used by the authorities to assess projects such as Corrib. They perceive that successive governments have prioritised the private gain of oil companies over the interests of their citizens.

Despite claims by Shell and certain journalists that the opposition to the project was engendered by “outside agitators” – be they environmentalists, republicans or whatever bogeyman is in vogue at the time – the fact is that the blame for the current situation must be laid squarely at the door of a company with no concern for the public good and the governments which acted to support it.

The current plan for Corrib gas will not benefit Erris or Ireland as a whole. It will not reduce gas prices for domestic users; neither is there any guarantee that Shell or other oil companies will be obliged to provide a secure supply of energy. As for Shell’s assurances of its commitment to safety, a survey by the Financial Times, published last year, shows Shell to be responsible for more employee and contractor deaths from 2003 to 2006 than Exxon and BP combined.

In 2005 the Nigerian Federal High Court ordered Shell to stop gas flaring. It has ignored this just as it ignores any law which does not suit it.

It would serve our new Government well to act now to redress the mistakes of previous years and prevent the degradation of Erris and the squandering of Irish resources.

Bob Kavanagh lives at Pollathomas and is an active supporter of the Shell to Sea campaign. He has been quoted as a spokesman for the “Rossport solidarity camp”, which is close to the landfall and original onshore route for the pipeline and was established two years ago.

The anti-Shell campaigners have lost the argument and it is time to move on, argues Brendan Cafferty

The recent general election threw up surprises for some people, not least here in Mayo. We of the Pro Gas Mayo group, who had to some degree predicted the outcome here, say that the Corrib Gas Project train has now well and truly left the station.

Former Independent TD Jerry Cowley and the Sinn Fein candidate had identified themselves closely with Shell to Sea. Both did badly even in Rossport itself, where another TD got more votes than the two of them put together despite supporting the project. That candidate initially objected but accepted due process when permission was granted. Other TDs also elected did not oppose it.

While it would be incorrect to say that the election was a referendum on the project or that other issues were not involved in the campaign, nevertheless we feel the electorate in the polling booth, where real freedom exists, sent out a certain message. We do not gloat over the outcome.

We also welcome the appointment of Green Party TD Eamon Ryan as the new minister. He may find, however, that moving from opposition to government carries its own burden, and we hope for continuation of policy in collective cabinet responsibility.

The last government gave the issue much time and thought, having appointed Advantica consultants to examine the pipeline, and also Peter Cassells, who did trojan work in the area even if certain people would not engage with him.

It would be unthinkable to turn back the clock now as it is past the point of no return. This is not Hugo Chavez country. Shell will pay 26 per cent corporation tax and there were only two applicants for this undertaking.

Every day the Corrib project takes another step forward. An extraordinary 450,000 tonnes of peat has been removed professionally from the terminal site to cut-away bog at Shramore. The transfer was completed last Friday and during it the company took great care and there was not a speck of peat to be seen on the 9km of road between the two sites.

Water which is collected on the site, and which may have some impurities due to disturbance, is stored and treated in one of the most modern water treatment plants in the world before being discharged into a local river in a drinkable state. The people of Galway must be envious.

Shell to Sea say they support the gas, too, but want it processed offshore. We submit that in such an event Erris would not benefit to any degree, with the offshore platform serviced from Donegal or Scotland.

Close to 400 jobs exist there at present, mostly local, and 700 will be employed for over two years in the actual construction. Thereafter there will be up to 100 permanent jobs, not to mention ancillary ones, and we feel that the project will act as a catalyst for future jobs and investment. It is our opinion that the project will give an injection of life to an underdeveloped and deprived area that will live far beyond the life of Corrib itself.

Those people who call on Shell to go to sea really mean “Shell go away”. Their spokesman, Mark Garavan, said as much in his letter to Mayo County Council in January 2004 – it was his opinion that there was no demonstrable need to exploit the Corrib gas reserves.

The Marine Licence Vetting Committee said it was of the opinion that there would be greater environmental and human risk through treating the gas at source. It also said that the gas should be developed in the national interest.

Talk of a commission of inquiry or reconfiguration is absurd. In the hearts and minds of all rational people the issue is closed and attempts to prolong it resemble an outdated Drumcree stand-off.

It is not Shell which is being challenged, but the State itself. As the late John Healy of Charlestown and The Irish Times used to say: “No one shouted STOP.”

People will look back in time and admire our stance, which has energetically sought to address the grievances of a small campaign movement, and they will frown on those who have sought to undermine our democracy – sometimes aided by some people in certain media. In the end, when homes are powered by Corrib gas, we will ask “what was it all about?”

Brendan Cafferty lives in Ballina and is secretary of Pro Gas Mayo

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