Corrib gas: A lesson in how not to go about building a major piece of infrastructure

Genuine, on-going consultation with the local community from the point of discovery 20 years ago might have ensured better outcomes

 

When the sky over Broadhaven Bay in northwest Mayo turned “pure orange” last New Year’s Eve, it was evident that gas had finally come ashore after years of tribulations over Shell E&P Ireland’s controversial Corrib gas project.

For many local residents, the “flaring” at Shell’s Bellanaboy terminal was a frightening occurrence that seemed to confirm their worst fears about the safety of refining volatile gas onshore rather than at sea, which is standard international practice.

This was at the heart of the long-running “Shell to Sea” campaign, which had earlier been vindicated by An Bord Pleanála’s 2002 decision to refuse planning permission for the scheme after one of its senior planning inspectors, Kevin Moore, concluded that Bellanaboy was “the wrong site” for such a “highly obtrusive” industrial project that involved safety risks as well as “significant environmental costs”.

It was only after Shell submitted a new application and then taoiseach Bertie Ahern personally intervened that the appeals board granted permission in 2004, subject to 42 conditions.

Protests resulted in five local men – the “Rossport Five” – being jailed for contempt of court in 2005; they spent just over three months in Cloverhill Prison. There were numerous clashes with Shell’s heavy-handed security personnel and also with gardaí who had been drafted into the area, at an estimated total cost to the State of €16 million.

Their handling of the protests generated a large number of complaints to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which recommended that one senior officer should be disciplined – although, inexplicably, this was not acted upon.

The long-running stand-off between Shell and its opponents delayed the Corrib project for several years and pushed the company’s capital investment to at least €3.5 billion. As a result, it will be many years – if ever – before it will pay any royalties to the State. In the meantime, Ireland will get the benefit of Shell’s gas (at full market price) rather than having to rely on imported gas from Russia; a major positive none the less as it enhances significantly Ireland’s security of gas supply.

Shell E&P Ireland’s managing director, Ronan Deasy, pledged at the official opening of the terminal last week – an event marked by a strong Garda presence – that his company wanted to be a “good neighbour” in the north Mayo community, even after all the rancour.

But it is hard to avoid the conclusion reached by the British Institution of Civil Engineers that the handling of this project from the outset provides an object lesson in “how not to undertake a development” – a piece of infrastructure of national importance.

A commitment to genuine consultation with the local community from the outset, when the Corrib field was first discovered nearly 20 years ago, would have saved a lot of grief for both Shell and the community.

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