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Giving our resources to Norway

Fintan O'Toole - Irish Times

The Irish Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One of the myths propagated by left-wing agitators is that the development of the Corrib gas field off the Mayo coast will not benefit the ordinary citizen. This is wildly inaccurate, argues Fintan O'Toole. 

The truth is that huge profit from the exploitation of this Irish natural resource will flow into the exchequer.

Over the next 15 years or so, hundreds of millions of euro will be generated for the public finances. The money will pay for better health services, for improved education facilities, for the alleviation of poverty, for investment in vital infrastructure. The people of north Mayo may have to endure some environmental degradation and to live with justified anxieties about their own safety. But the lives of millions of ordinary people will be made better as a result.

The bad news is that all of those ordinary people are Norwegian. The maths are simple enough. The plain people of Norway own just over 71 per cent of Statoil. Statoil has a 36.5 per cent stake in the development of the Corrib field. (Shell has 45 per cent and Marathon 18.5 per cent.) That means that the citizens of Norway effectively own 25.5 per cent of the gas from the Corrib field. Which is precisely 25.5 per cent more than the citizens of Ireland do. A resource that lies 70 kilometres off the Mullet peninsula in Co Mayo will benefit Erik and Elsa Soap in Bergen far more than it will benefit Joe and Josephine Soap in Belmullet.

In an almost comically absurd expression of our addiction to misgovernment, we will buy our own gas at commercial rates from, among others, the Norwegian people. Last year, 67 per cent of Statoil's profits were taken by the state in the form of taxes, boosting the exchequer in Oslo by around €5.7 billion. If these tax rates continue to apply, that means that for every €100 worth of profit that is made from Irish people buying our own Corrib gas over the next 15 years or so, around €17 will go into the Norwegian exchequer. Most of it, presumably, will go into the vast Government Petroleum Fund, which the Norwegian state is storing up against the day when its own oil runs out. So Irish gas will be helping to pay the pensions of Sami deer-herders in Lapland in 2050.

While Irish kids take trips to see Santa Claus in Lapland, the Laps will be writing letters to Santa in Ireland.

This may be the largest transfer of resources from Ireland to Scandinavia since the Vikings raided our monasteries in the eighth and ninth centuries and nabbed the chalices and crucifixes. The big difference, of course, is that this time the transfer is, on our part, entirely voluntary. Even as oil prices hit $70 a barrel, we are in the business of giving away our energy resources for nothing - no public stake, no royalties and very little taxation. It is not Norway's fault that our Government continues to volunteer us for the role of "ragged trousered philanthropists", sending money to Tromso and Trondheim when it is badly needed in Leitrim and Longford.

The Norwegians have had the intelligence and self-respect to ensure that their natural resources are used to fund the country's social and economic development. Norwegian government policy is that the first aim of oil and gas development is that "the whole population should benefit from the depletion of these resources. This implies that our petroleum revenues must be managed with the view of improving the welfare of present and future citizens of Norway." The share of the profits from the Corrib field that will go to the Norwegian state will undoubtedly benefit far more people than will the portions going to the shareholders of Shell and Marathon, and we can hardly begrudge them the fruits of their far-sightedness.

There is nevertheless an irony in Statoil's involvement in the Corrib project. As an arm of a progressive, liberal state which takes its social responsibilities seriously, Statoil would never dream of treating Norwegians the way it is treating the Rossport community in Mayo. In Norway, Statoil regards the local communities affected by its pipelines and refineries with tender concern. It puts large amounts of money into affected areas to compensate for the inconveniences. It pays way over the odds for property that has to be compulsorily purchased.

And Statoil's operations in underdeveloped countries are also run with considerable sensitivity. According to the company's social responsibility manager, Natalja Altermark: "A country manager's top priority is to secure the reputation of the Statoil operation in that country, while being wary about how this operation affects Statoil's corporate reputation in Norway." In Norway or Nigeria, Statoil wouldn't dream of having members of a local community affected by the company's operations locked up in prison for a peaceful protest. The Norwegian citizens wouldn't tolerate it and the Norwegian government would be mortified by the international opprobrium. But in Ireland, Statoil seems to feel no such responsibility, presumably because it imagines itself to be operating in a modern democracy where the State will stand up for the citizens.

How could you even begin to explain to rational, enlightened people such as the Norwegians how far-fetched an assumption this is?

Posted Date: 
30 August 2005 (All day)