The €3.5 billion Corrib gas development is due to be opened by Minister of State for Natural Resources Joe McHugh on Monday, almost 20 years after the gas discovery was reported off the north Mayo coast.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny had been earmarked for the invitation-only event, but will be at Downing Street in London. Corrib shareholders Shell, Statoil and Vermillion are hosting a plaque unveiling and lunch in Belmullet, almost 15km from the gas refinery.
While much of the town’s focus is currently on sale of the €13.7 million winning Lotto ticket in Carey’s newsagent, the project opening represents a significant milestone.
It was given final approval by Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Alex White on December 29th, and valves controlling the wells at the field, 83km offshore, were opened on December 30th.
Shell has said it will meet up to 60 per cent of Ireland’s gas needs at peak production. Mr White said it would meet “an average of 42 per cent of all-island gas demand over its first two years of operation” for a lifespan of 15 years.
A Vayu Energy market report published on Monday will say Corrib is expected to start supplying the national network "later this year".
Shell's new managing director for Corrib, Ronan Deasy – the fourth since its acquisition from Enterprise Oil – has apologised to residents, Willie and Mary Corduff of Rossport, for what he has described as "exceptional flaring" or burning off of gas to relieve pressure on New Year's Eve.
The intensity of this flaring is still "under investigation", according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Its emissions license for Corrib is the subject of a High Court challenge taken by residents Maura and Martin Harrington, Monica Muller and Peter Sweetman.
Mr White has also allowed three months for a judicial review of his decision, and Shell to Sea spokeswoman Maura Harrington said on Sunday "the final permission will not go unchallenged".
Glengad resident Colm Henry, whose house overlooks the pipeline's landfall, says "no one can rest easy with a project that the developers are regulating themselves". He is continuing his legal action over the safety of the gas landfall valve installation close to his home.
Mrs Corduff says that Mr Deasy’s apology has not reassured her, given his reference to flaring being “greater than what we expected”. She has not been invited to the opening.
Among those who have been are Fine Gael councillor Gerry Coyle, and former Fianna Fáil and independent councillor Paraic Cosgrove. The former acknowledges fears were genuine – as reflected in the pipeline re-routing by An Bord Pleanala – while the latter maintains that safety fears have been "over-stated", and maintains that emigration is the far bigger scandal.
Mr Cosgrove, who lives 10 km from Ballinaboy, welcomes employment for 175 people.
Shell was not able to provide a breakdown of how many of these employees are from the locality, but among them is civil engineer Bernie McManamon (28) from Bangor Erris, who worked as an intern and was then offered a rolling contract .
“There are six in my family, three have worked on or with companies associated with Corrib, and I met my fiancé on it,” Ms McManamon says. “60 per cent of my class at college had to go abroad,”she points out, whereas she gained invaluable experience.
She says she was sensitive to local opposition, and says people were “generally very respectful of each other’s positions” .
This is echoed by Vinnie McDonnell (26), a quantity surveyor from Carne near Belmullet, who was one of the first recipients of Shell's scholarship scheme for third-level students from the area. The Limerick Institute of Technology graduate subsequently worked with several contractors on the project and is now with SIRO, the ESB/Vodafone broadband provider.
“At one stage, there were 1,900 people working on the site, and I’ve never been out of a job since,” he says.