"This is one of the most important stories of it's kind in Europe."
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
By: James Laffey, Editorial - The Western People
I don’t know what it was about 1996 but the gods certainly weren’t looking favourably on Mayo. Not only did we lose an All-Ireland football final but 1996 was also the year in which a little-known exploration company called Enterprise Energy Ireland announced it had discovered gas off the coast of Mayo. And thus began the fiasco that is the Corrib Gas project.
Less than twelve months after Enterprise Energy’s initial announcement, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were elected to Government and the responsibility for the Corrib Gas project was handed to newly-appointed Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Frank Fahey. If anyone should have known about getting a good deal for the West of Ireland it was Frank Fahey. A Galway man and the only Connacht representative at the Cabinet table, Fahey was ideally placed to leave a lasting legacy for the people of his province. It is to Fahey’s eternal shame that he not only failed to get a good deal for his own people, but he actually abandoned them to a gang of corporate thugs who spent the next five years riding roughshod over the people of the West. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the former Minister ever attempted to convince Enterprise Energy that it should build its gas terminal offshore. On the contrary, all the evidence would suggest that he actively encouraged the company to take the ‘cheap’ option and process the gas onshore. In other words, he gave Enterprise Energy a carte blanche to do whatever it had to do in Mayo. As far back as October 2001 Fahey was been questioned in the Dáil by Deputy Michael Ring about the ‘undue influence’ he was exerting on Mayo County Council in relation to the Corrib project. Notwithstanding Ring’s questioning, Fahey persisted in his unashamed promotion of a project that was wrong then, is wrong now and will still be wrong in 100 years time.
It is worth pointing out one very important fact. The primary reason why Shell is now attempting to build a gas terminal onshore is because it was generously sold a site by Coillte, the State forestry body, at Bellanaboy. If that site had not been available Shell would have been forced to go offshore. It is that simple.The company can talk all it wants about the disadvantages of an offshore gas terminal but the reality is that had the 400 plus acres of land not been available at Bellanaboy there is not a hope in hell that it would have been able to bring such a wholly inappropriate project onto Irish soil.
The people of Erris – and, more particularly, Rossport and Bellanaboy – were desperately unlucky that Coillte had the site in its possession and that it came to the attention of Frank Fahey. The root of the problem was the easy availability of the site; everything else cascaded from that initial decision. In 2003, the An Bord Pleanála inspector, Kevin Moore, was highly critical of the sale of the Coillte site and went so far as to describe it as a waste of a valuable State resource. Moore was right – as, indeed, he was on so many other aspects of the Corrib Gas project. The site should never been offered to Shell and had it not been this whole sorry saga would have been avoided.
Would Shell have landed the gas in some other county had the Bellanaboy site not existed? Perhaps they would. But they would have been hard pressed to find 400 acres in any other county along the western seaboard. It’s no easy task to acquire several hundred acres of land. How many farmers would be willing to sell large parcels of land for a gas terminal? I don’t think there would be too many. Therefore, Shell’s argument that an onshore gas terminal is the only option is rendered null and void when one considers the unique set of circumstances that dictated the company’s decision to come to Bellanaboy. Let’s be clear about one thing: Shell did not come to Erris out of the kindness of its big corporate heart. It came to Erris because it was given a very convenient site by Coillte at a price no-one knows because both parties refuse to disclose the details of the deal. The notion of the company investigating alternative sites for the Corrib terminal is a nonsense – and Kevin Moore said as much in his damning report two years ago. What was the point of exploring offshore options when a cheaper onshore facility was being handed on a plate to Enterprise Energy Ireland? The company has accepted that it saved a few hundred million euro by locating the terminal onshore. The executives of Enterprise Energy Ireland must have been performing high fives the day Frank Fahey rang up to offer them this lovely woodland site in County Mayo!
At this stage, Shell should have a bit of decency and dignity and spare us all the nonsense about onshore versus offshore terminals. There was never a decision to be made by the company on the location of the terminal. Frank Fahey made the decision for them. Once the Bellanaboy site entered the equation there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that the company was going to consider an offshore facility. Why would they? Spend a few hundred million going offshore when you were being invited onshore? You’d want to be mad!If Shell really wants to convince the people of Erris that it gave appropriate consideration to a wide range of sites for the Corrib gas terminal it should produce the evidence for all to see. Where did it intend to go had it not received planning permission for Bellanaboy? If you are to bring Shell’s argument to its logical conclusion (i.e. that the onshore terminal was the only option), surely it would have had a number of other sites along the western seaboard as Plans B, C and D. But it didn’t. Apart from taking a cursory glance at the Asahi site – and that was only at the behest of An Bord Pleanála – the company looked nowhere except Bellanaboy. And why should it? From the day Coillte offered its 400-acre site to Enterprise Energy Ireland – and, no doubt, there was a bit of arm-twisting involved in that deal as well – Bellanaboy was the only show in town. The company was clearly given assurances that, come what may, it would be guaranteed planning permission for its gas terminal in Bellanaboy.
As Shell has said so often in recent weeks, it has all its consents in place for Bellanaboy. But the problem for Shell is that it doesn’t have the most important consent of all: the consent of the people of Erris. Every other licence and ministerial order (even the wad of documents that were hurriedly signed by Minister Fahey on the day he left office in 2002!) are worthless without the consent of the people. Shell would want to quickly realise that it is not operating in Nigeria – although the events of recent weeks might suggest otherwise. This is a democracy in which people are unwilling to stand in silence as law-abiding friends, neighbours and countymen are sent to jail by a greedy multinational.
Is it possible to feel sorry for Shell? Is it hell! This is a company that makes fifteen billion euro in profits each year. It can well-afford to take its terminal offshore. After all, it’s getting the Corrib gas free gratis in a deal that is without parallel anywhere else in the world. If Shell has even a shred of integrity in its greedy, corporate entity it will agree to go offshore without delay, thus ending the wholly unnecessary hell it has put the people of Erris through since 1999.