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What next in a land divided?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

CARL O’BRIEN Social Affairs Correspondent

EVERYTHING IS quiet in Glengad. The sun is threatening to break through the clouds scudding over Broadhaven Bay and nearby a group of sand martins are dancing on the wind. In the distance, the quartzite peaks of the Nephin Beg mountains are obscured by mist. The silence is broken only by the faint drone of a generator and the crunch of a digger filling in a large trench on the beach.

Just a few days ago, the contrast couldn’t have been greater. For the best part of the past month, this isolated area was transformed into one of the most heavily policed areas in the State as the Corrib gas project entered a crucial phase.

The pipe-laying ship, the Solitaire , arrived in what was a massive show of force, surrounded by Garda aqua units, private security boats and the Navy. On land, the approach roads swarmed with more than 200 gardaí and the same number of security men to prevent protesters disrupting the project.

In the end, this latest phase was completed. The 83km pipe now connects this north Mayo community to the Corrib gas reservoir, with just 9km to go before it reaches its destination, the gas terminal at Bellanaboy.

But while most of the security staff, gardaí and protesters have moved on, it has left behind something more disturbing. This is a community increasingly under strain, riven by deep divisions over whether the project should go ahead or be relocated elsewhere. The tensions have severed links between families, broken lifelong friendships and bred a culture of mistrust between the residents opposed to it and those who accept it. Neighbours, work colleagues, even members of the clergy are increasingly defined by their support or opposition to the project. Those who support the project welcome the jobs (1,000 during construction; about 50 longer term) and economic boost it promises; those opposed to it say it threatens the health and safety of families right across the area.

IN ESSENCE, the Corrib gas controversy resembles a complex and emotional morality tale that speaks of our elemental attachment to the land. But it’s also a very modern struggle between our unyielding hunger for energy and the need to protect the environment.

“It takes its toll, of course it does,” says Colm Henry (60), one of the protesters, looking out the front window of his bungalow at Glengad. Down below, the diggers are filling in the pipe trench, protected behind high wire fencing and security cameras. “It has created tensions and bad feelings. People are more wary of each other. The atmosphere has changed. It’s a pity, but that’s the way it is.

“Shell has been going around offering money, which some people find hard to refuse. But I can’t see how this benefits the community in one way.” If it was safe, he says, he would support the project, but he feels he’s living within the “killing zone” of the pipeline should it ever rupture.

“Now, we feel like we’re living in an open prison because we oppose it. We’re basically under surveillance with cameras pointed at the house here, watching everything we do. I can’t go down to the beach with my daughters or grandchildren. I’m no radical,  we’re from a big Fianna Fáil family. I’m just standing up for my family.”

At a house a few fields away, and even closer to the pipeline, the mood is very different. The owner, who declines to give his name, says he is in favour of the proposal and feels reassured about the safety of the project.

“They’ve done a fairly good job on the safety side of things,” he says. “I don’t know why they keep protesting. There are lots of dangers out there; every time you drive, you’re at risk. In Galway there are big fuel drums near residential areas and no one says anything. If you looked at things that way, you wouldn’t get up in the morning.” He says most are in favour of the project but are afraid to speak out.

“Most people here, maybe 70 per cent, are in favour of it. But they don’t want to be seen to be on the wrong side of the rope, if you know what I mean. As it is, there are friends who cross over to the other side of the road when they see you, or drink in different pubs now. Hopefully, it will settle down eventually, but I’m not so sure it ever will.”

Farther along the road, towards the village of Rossport, the signs of opposition become more obvious. “Stop Shell” is daubed on the wall of a house,  while “no raw gas” signs appear with increasing regularity on the electricity poles.

On the roof of an abandoned cottage is another slogan: “Community is our strength”. In the circumstances, it sounds more like an appeal than a statement.

It’s almost impossible to gauge accurately the level of support or opposition for the project. In outlying areas, such as Belmullet, where the hotels, guesthouses and pubs are full most nights of the week with the 1,000 workers employed on the project, opinion on the project is largely positive. For the isolated communities directly affected by the project, the level of support depends on who you talk to.

What is clear is that the numbers signing up to give their consent to the project are significant. Of the 21 landowners directly affected, excluding areas of commonage, Shell says 15 have signed agreements for their land to be used in exchange for compensation. When local fishermen were offered compensation for disruption caused by pipe-laying this summer, the vast majority of the 40 or so affected opted to take payments of between €30,000 and €40,000 each; only a handful refused.

One thing everyone agrees on is the need for gas. Located at the end of Europe’s networks of gas pipelines, more than 90 per cent of our gas comes via interconnectors with the UK. Kinsale, which used to meet about half of our need, now meets less than 10 per cent of it.

The Corrib field, a medium-sized reservoir in global terms, will supply up to 60 per cent of Ireland’s gas at peak production, according to a report from Goodbody economic consultants. The project is now around 80 per cent complete. If planning authorities agree to a modified route for 9km of pipeline over land to a processing terminal at Bellanaboy, the gas could be flowing within a year and a half.

LOCAL PEOPLE SAY the sense of excitement when gas was first discovered off the coast almost 15 years ago was palpable.

“Many of us emigrated over the years and worked on the building sites in the UK and elsewhere, so we began to think there would be possibilities here,” says Vincent McGrath, one of the Rossport Five who was jailed in 2005 for breaching a court injunction preventing him interfering with the project.

Things soon turned sour. They weren’t helped by a public relations fiasco involving the original backer of the project, Enterprise Oil, which failed to engage in any meaningful way with the local community.

“You had people coming in with English accents and wearing shades, waving permits around and digging test trenches,” admits a Government source. “Those earlier years of the project led to a real breakdown in trust which was always going to be difficult to regain.” When the Rossport Five were detained, community relations with Shell – which had taken over the project – were at an all-time low. The company admitted it got it wrong and quickly changed tack.

Following a report from the Government-appointed mediator, Peter Cassells, Shell agreed to address community concerns by lowering the pressure in onshore pipelines and proposing a new route, twice the distance – 140 metres away – from occupied housing. It also launched a positive public relations drive by holding regular tours of the new terminal for local groups and providing grants for local community groups and students.

The changes, though, have failed to appease groups such as Pobal Chill Chomain, the main group representing local opposition, as well as Shell to Sea, a more radical grouping of environmentalists and students who, for the most part, are from outside of the area. They feel they’re being steam-rolled into submission through a combination of  Shell, the Garda and other State agencies. “We’re not against gas being brought ashore,” says McGrath, a member of the group.

“Our issue is health and safety and the environment. As citizens we should be entitled to protection in this regard by the State, but the rules are being bent for Shell all over the place.”

The arrival of gardaí and private security has raised tensions here to a new level in recent weeks. It has also led to a series of murky and bizarre incidents. Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport Five, alleged he was beaten up by security staff as he protested under a truck at the Shell site in late April. The allegations were rejected by Integrate Risk Management Services (IRMS), a private security firm employed by Shell.

Events took another twist when Pat O’Donnell, a fisherman known as “the chief” and a prominent critic of the project, claimed his boat had been sunk after being boarded by masked men with foreign accents in the dead of night. Gardaí, however, said there was no sign of any vessel when they responded to a rescue call. Again, IRMS was blamed.

To some protesters, the incidents are a sign of heavy-handed tactics being used by the oil and gas multinational. Gardaí say privately the incidents are groundless and are part of a strategy to try to turn public opinion against Shell and the Corrib project.

Sitting in his jeep, looking out towards the bay where the incident is said to have occurred, O’Donnell is spitting with anger. He is due in court the next morning for a public order offence. Another example, he says, of being victimised by gardaí.

“I’ve been hospitalised, bruised, I’ve had my ribs and teeth broken,” he says, pulling on a cigarette. “The windows of my boat have been smashed earlier this year, and my boat was attacked and sunk.” He says he’s aware that some in the community portray him as an extreme and fringe element of the protesters. He insists he’s just protecting his family.

“One of my boats is sunk, three more have been confiscated. I’ve signed on the dole for the first time with my son. That’s not a life I want. I just want to stop this project for the sake of my children and the community.”

Back at Glengad, the job of burying the gas pipeline under tonnes of rubble and rock continues. As you approach the site, surrounded by layers of security, cameras and high metal gates, the first sight of the pipe feels almost anti-climactic. Buried about seven or eight metres under the ground, the pipe is about 20 inches wide and one inch thick. Dwarfed by the machinery and security around it, it seems difficult to believe this is what much of the fuss is about. The pipe will eventually be covered with several layers of protective coating, including plastic and concrete, to protect it from external corrosion, according to Shell.

“I have people who are a bit embarrassed when they see it,” says Colin Joyce, a spokesman for Shell. “I’ve brought local landowners to the Netherlands, where they’ve lived with these pipes for the past 50 or 60 years. When you ask a farmer what they think about it, they say, ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me’.” That sentiment does little to ease the fears of Vincent McGrath. He says the local pipeline is potentially lethal, even if it runs at half the pressure it was designed for.   “We’re the ones who’ll be living with this. There were 15 explosions in Bord Gais pipes over the past 12 years. A house was destroyed in Blackrock in Dublin a few months ago due to a gas pipe, which was around 1.8 bars of pressure. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

IF ANYONE WAS under the impression that the protests were drawing to a close since the pipes have been laid at sea, they would be mistaken.

Construction of the 9km onshore pipeline is due to begin later this year, if An Bord Pleanála gives its approval to the new route. It’s a relatively easy project from an engineering point of view, but the protests could easily dwarf anything that has been seen to date.

“I do fear for what will happen,” says McGrath. “The fact that we’re talking to Shell shows we’re committed to finding a solution. I can see legal challenges, constitutional challenges. The opposition on the ground will be as strong as ever.”

However, not everyone feels gloomy about the future. Gerry Coyle, a Fine Gael councillor who topped the popular vote, is convinced that the compromise and consultation will yet yield a critical mass of support for the project and help ease much of the tension and ill-feeling in the area.

“Look around here, it’s absolutely beautiful,” says Coyle, pointing to the rolling expanse of Broadwater Bay. “Consultation is the key. Yes, let there be gas, let there be tourism, let the whole area benefit.

“There can be a solution that will be to most people’s agreement, if we are willing to compromise on both sides.”

It may be wishful thinking. But the residents of Rossport, Glengad and other villages in Chill Chomain parish must hope he’s right.

THE KEY ISSUES

PIPELINE ROUTE

Shell says: The selected route strikes the best balance between the competing priorities of local community concerns, environmental issues and the technical aspects of the project. The proposed route is 140 metres from the nearest occupied house, twice as far away from occupied housing compared to the previously approved route.

Protesters say: The pipeline still runs too close to residential areas, placing dozens of homes in potential danger, and should be relocated to lesser populated areas such as Glinsk. In addition, it crosses the key roads in several places, potentially hindering the movement of people in the event of an explosion.

GAS PRESSURE

Shell says: The pressure running through the pipes has been reduced by half from 345 bars (the tyre pressure of a typical car tyre is around two bars) to a maximum of 144 bars in residential areas, following concerns from locals. The normal operating pressure in the pipeline will be approximately 120 bars and this will reduce as gas in the Corrib reservoir naturally depletes.

Protesters say: The pressure is still too high for dozens of houses in the path of the onshore pipeline. Even with gas running through pipes at a reduced level of 144 bars, any houses within a 230-metre radius could “burn spontaneously” from heat radiation. They say this has been accepted by consultants employed by Shell at a recent planning hearing. At present, the pipe runs within 170 metres of the many houses.

PROCESS AT SEA OR ON LAND

Shell says : Onshore processing of Corrib gas is the best option for a field of this type and size from a safety, environmental and economic point of view. The harsh Atlantic location and deep water make Corrib unsuitable for offshore processing. An offshore platform would still require an onshore terminal, albeit a smaller one, and a high-pressure onshore pipeline.

Protesters say: Some local groups accept that the gas may need to be processed on land, although Shell To Sea is opposed and says the processing terminal is on unstable bogland and will release harmful gases into the atmosphere. It says there are at least 16 houses affected in the immediate vicinity. In addition, it says waste-water and other materials are in danger of entering Carrowmore Lake, which feeds the water supply of the Erris area.

WE’RE SELLING OFF OUR NATURAL RESOURCES TOO CHEAPLY

Shell says: Successive Irish governments, like many others in Europe, have chosen to invite private companies to shoulder the significant financial risks associated with exploration. About 140 wells have been drilled by different companies over the past 30 years at a cost of €2 billion. Despite this drilling, Ireland has only one gas field in production – the Kinsale field, which is nearly depleted. Once in production, the Corrib Gas Partners will pay 25 per cent tax on profits, twice the rate of normal corporation tax.

Protesters say: Groups like Shell to Sea say that only Cameroon has a lower share of revenues from its oil and gas reserves compared to Ireland. It says deals negotiated by former minister Ray Burke and other ministers mean there is no State shareholding in natural resources, and no automatic bonus or royalty payments.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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