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Mark Garvan opinion Irish Times Dec 13

The last number of months has seen an extraordinary campaign of villification directed at the Shell to Sea campaign group. Certain elements in the media have seized upon particular individuals, particular categories of supporters or isolated incidents to construct a false and misleading characterisation of the entire campaign.
The truth is that Shell to Sea is not an organisation but a loosely networked campaign comprising many disparate elements. However, it is rooted in a community of decent, law-abiding people, supported by many throughout the country, who have found themselves over six years confronted by the might of three large multi-national corporations fully supported by the Irish Government and the main opposition party.
After so much deliberate confusing and obscuring of the issues, it is time to address in a calm and sensible manner the causes of the present conflict and to consider how this matter might be resolved.
First, it is important to acknowledge that the Shell to Sea position is not an isolated, marginal one. It is clear from four successive independent opinion polls that an off-shore processing of the Corrib gas is the preferred option of a majority in Co.Mayo.
The core problem with the Corrib gas project is the decision to locate the processing plant nine kilometres inland. This unprecedented feature of the project has given rise to the local campaign of opposition. Why ? Let me outline a number of reasons.
First, the plant is being constructed on a bog. To build it 500,000 tonnes of wet Atlantic peat must be removed. This is an extraordinarily risky procedure, one never before attempted. The risk of peat run-off, aluminium build-up, increase in peat instability in a wide area and general water contamination is high. This is a serious matter given that Carrowmore Lake, the source of most of the drinking water for Erris, is just two miles away from the site.
Second, gas processing involves a number of hazardous activities. In the event of fire or explosion, the area is poorly served by necessary support infrastructure such as medical facilities, fire fighting capacity and accessible roads. Yet the plant is being proposed for a populated area with a number of houses some hundreds of yards from it. In addition, the inland location of the plant necessitates the routing of a production pipeline also through populated areas.
Third, the processing gives rise to a number of chemical by-products. Discharges will occur to both air and water. There will be a high-pressure flare stack some 40 metres high, two low-pressure chimneys and the developer will "cold vent" methane to the air. All of this will degrade the environmental quality of the area and give rise to ongoing local anxiety about health.
Fourth, the insertion of this huge plant into an entirely rural and non-industrialised area will change the character of the area irrevocably and transform it from a location of intimacy and familiarity to one that is alien to many of its inhabitants. The physical building itself will cover 22 acres and operate 24/7 with attendant noise and lighting.
Finally, it is clear that Shell's determination to secure the Bellanaboy site is driven by their expectation of developing further gas wells in the future. This was acknowledged by them at the An Bord Pleanala oral hearing. The 400 acres available at Bellanaboy permits them to build additional processing plants in the future.
The question for people outside the area directly affected by this project is this : is the exposure of a small community to health and safety risks and to environmental and cultural loss necessary because of the overall benefits to the country as a whole ? Well, what are the benefits ? Is it security of supply ? No, because Bord Gais makes it quite clear that most Irish gas comes from the North Sea and that there is no medium-term threat to the continuity of those supplies.
Is it lower cost ? No, the price of gas is determined by global market forces and Corrib will be purchased at full market price.
Are there significant financial benefits to the State ? Again no. No royalties are being extracted, no equity share taken, no windfall tax levied. All exploration and development costs can be written off against tax at 100 per cent from year one. Thus very little financial benefit will arise.

Might there be jobs from the project ? Minimal, other than in the short-term construction of the plant. Once the plant is operational only 50 jobs will be needed. The companies are not obliged to employ Irish workers on their exploration rigs nor do they have to source their supplies from Ireland.

The real beneficiaries are Norway (because of Statoil’s involvement), Scotland (where the bulk of the industry’s supplies are sourced) and the shareholders of Shell and Marathon.
The question then is straightforward – is this project worth it ? Perhaps a more important question arises – what kind of Ireland do you want to live in ?

If you think the benefits so obvious that a small community should suffer loss as a result, then fine. But if you believe in the right to live securely, without risk, then ask if the benefits are really so clear that a community of your fellow citizens should be denounced, ridiculed and forced by the deployment of large numbers of gardaí to accept this particular project.

The real issue is to resolve the conflict. It is a shame that neither Minister for Natural Resources Noel Dempsey nor the Taoiseach have visited the area and spoken to the local people. Shell to Sea,s proposal for an independent inquiry to determine the optimum development concept for the project, employing clear and reasonable criteria, was rejected within hours by Shell and the Government.
Surely the time has come to pause, take stock and agree a proper development that meets with local consent and delivers real national benefits.

Mark Garavan is spokesman for the Shell to Sea campaign.
(Irish Times, 13th December 2006)

Posted Date: 
8 December 2006 - 3:26pm