"This is one of the most important stories of it's kind in Europe."
Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Willie Corduff, a farmer from Rossport in western Ireland, spent 94 days in prison for obstructing Royal Dutch/Shell Plc's plans to build a pipeline near his village. A court will rule today on whether he needs to serve more time.
``I don't want to go back to jail, but I will if I have to,'' said Corduff, 51, as he drove from Bellanaboy to Rossport, a 30-house village perched on the edge of Broadhaven Bay in Mayo. Corduff, wearing blue jeans and green wellington boots, says he'll do anything ``within the law'' to prevent the project.
Corduff and four other men, known in Ireland as the Rossport Five, argue that the Shell pipeline less than 100 meters (109 yards) from their homes puts their families' health at risk. Shell, Europe's second-biggest oil company, says the pipeline is needed to bring gas from its $1.1 billion Corrib gas field in the Atlantic Ocean to a refinery at Bellanaboy, near Rossport.
The Rossport Five were jailed on June 29 for defying a court order to not interfere with the pipeline. Protesters, including the Rossport Five and their wives, blocked Shell workers' access to the site under the eye of the local police. While free again, the men will learn today in Dublin's High Court if they will be punished for contempt of court. A ruling against them would mean a further spell in jail, fines, or a reprimand.
The project, which has government approval because it would supply 60 percent of Ireland's gas needs over the next two decades, is pitting residents against supporters such as the Pro- Erris Gas Group, which highlights new jobs that would come to the area. Rossport is on the tip of the Erris peninsula, close to the Glengad and Dooncarton mountains, and one of the least inhabited areas of Europe.
Shell's pipeline will help reduce Ireland's reliance on oil. Around 54 percent of Ireland's energy comes from oil, compared with a global average of 37 percent, according to Cork-based Bord Gais, Ireland's state-owned gas supplier. Some 1,000 people may be employed during the project's construction, according to Shell, which is based in London and The Hague.
``A lot of money would come into the community and there would be good quality jobs available,'' said Chris Tallot, a retiree from nearby Belmullet who worked in peat supply at Bord na Mona for 46 years. He's part of the group backing the project.
An Irish government review of the project is due to be completed in December, and Shell says it's confident the project will go ahead. The government has promised a mediator to try to resolve the impasse over the project.
For Shell and its partner in the project, Stavanger-based Statoil ASA, Norway's largest oil company, the conflict in Ireland is just one of many as oil companies seek the next generation of energy supplies as those found decades ago start to run out.
The Rossport Five have the backing of Owens Wiwa, the brother of Ken Saro Wiwa, who campaigned against oil companies including Shell. He was hanged by the Nigerian government a decade ago. Seven years ago, adverse publicity forced Shell to drop a plan to sink the obsolete Brent Spar oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean.
``We'll see more and more conflicts between local communities and oil companies,'' says Dirk Hoozemans, a fund manager at Robeco Group in Rotterdam, which manages $4 billion in energy stocks. ``The issues are health, safety and the environment.''
The Corrib gas reservoir, discovered in 1996, contains an estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of gas and was the first significant offshore find in Ireland in 25 years.
``It's unthinkable that the Corrib field won't be developed,'' said Job Langbroek, a Dublin-based analyst at Davy Stockbrokers, Ireland's biggest broker. ``Gas is going be an important source of energy over the next 10 to 20 years.''
That hasn't stopped the five men, three farmers and two retired school teachers, from being turned into celebrities. Posters backing the five men dot the roadsides around Rossport and Bellanaboy. Supporters etched the slogan ``Freedom and Justice for the Rossport 5'' into bog land surrounding Rossport. Supporters also held protest marches in Dublin, Galway and in London.
A songwriter, Sean Nicholson, composed a ballad in their honor. Politicians including Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams welcomed the men's release from Cloverhill prison in Dublin on Sept. 30.
The Rossport Five, supported by a group called ``Shell to Sea,'' want the gas from the Corrib field to be sent to an offshore terminal for treatment. Shell rules out building an offshore terminal on safety and financial grounds, and says the gas will be pumped across the men's land at a safe level.
Shell, which has spent 450 million euros on the project so far, says work won't resume until at least 2006 because of weather conditions during the winter. Shell, which said in 2002 it expected to bring gas onshore within two years, now can't say when it expects to begin tapping the field.
``The schedule is under review,'' said Shell spokeswoman Susan Shannon, who is based in Dublin. ``We are assessing the impact of recent events. It's too early to say with certainty the impact on the overall project schedule.''
Corduff, meanwhile, says he'll continue to defend his land.
``I wouldn't leave here for 10 million euros,'' said Corduff, whose father came to the land in 1947 and who himself reared six children in Rossport. ``We're a small community with no money, but we're not going to give up. We're going to keep fighting.''
-- Editors: Root, Gregori.
To contact the reporters on this story:
Fergal O'Brien in Dublin at firstname.lastname@example.org;
Dara Doyle in Dublin at email@example.com.
Last Updated: October 25, 2005 01:43 EDT