Crux of Corrib problem is a lack of real dialogue

Efforts to prevent the Corrib gas project proceeding are a challenge to our democracy, argues Terry Nolan of Shell, who appeals…

Efforts to prevent the Corrib gas project proceeding are a challenge to our democracy, argues Terry Nolan of Shell, who appeals for dialogue

I returned to Ireland in May 2006 to take up the role of deputy managing director on the Corrib project. A native of Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, I was delighted to be coming home to Ireland, after working for 25 years around the world on oil and gas projects.

My vision is for Corrib to be developed as a modern and efficient gas project, operating to the very highest health and safety standards, supplying 60 per cent of Ireland's gas needs and recognised as being of strategic importance to this country.

My ambition is to have an operation managed and run mainly by Irish people, training professional staff in Co Mayo, supported by Shell's international organisation and global technical expertise.

Moreover, I have a vision of Shell being an accepted and welcome part of the local community. In countries such as Norway and the Netherlands, where I worked for eight years, the oil and gas industry is so well developed that local communities welcome oil and gas projects as they know the enormous benefits that these bring.

In the 1980s, I worked in the Netherlands on a project involving onshore oil and gas production. We had drilling rigs operating oil and gas fields in very close proximity to communities.

In one case we operated a soundproofed drilling rig located between apartment blocks in a suburb of Rotterdam. The closest analogy I can think of would be operating a drilling rig between Dublin's Custom House and Liberty Hall. With careful community consultation we managed to operate successfully within that community for many years.

The Corrib gas field was discovered 10 years ago. Contrary to what is often stated, the composition of Corrib gas is not unique; it is a clean and relatively pure form of gas. The plan to bring Corrib gas ashore through a pipeline to an onshore processing plant is not unique. The technology being used is not unique.

So, why has there been so much controversy?

The answer is that there is something unique about Corrib. A multinational company is developing a gas plant in an area that has no previous experience of the gas industry and has limited experience of industrial developments.

As engineers, we are conditioned to think in terms of science, of risk analysis, of process. We use terminology that is not accessible to everyone. This has contributed enormously to the lack of understanding and the genuine concerns that the Corrib gas project has created. We used numbers and technical vocabulary to tell our story - and we failed to reassure people.

However, this does not take away from the fact that the Corrib gas pipeline and project is safe. Independent studies have shown this to be true. The project has been through a rigorous planning and consents process.

The crux of the Corrib problem is not safety. Across the world there are more than 2,000 gas plants. Many of these are closer to houses and communities than the Corrib project is. All of the safety concerns around Corrib have been addressed - most recently through the Government-initiated independent safety review carried out by a UK-based company with extensive experience in this area.

In addition to this, following the publication of Peter Cassells' mediation report, we agreed to move the pipeline to address some people's concern that the pipeline was too close to housing.

As citizens we put our faith in the government that we elect and the statutory bodies of the State. We all live with the decisions that they make. Failure to do so will undermine our democracy. The Corrib gas project has every necessary government and regulatory consent and planning permission.

One often-cited argument against the current plan to develop Corrib is that the gas should be processed using a platform out at sea. "Shell to Sea" is a catchy slogan but one with no substance. The Corrib gas field will never be developed using an offshore platform. It is less safe, less environmentally friendly and uneconomic. No reputable energy company would develop it as such and it is simply not an option.

Arguments about Ireland's natural resources cloud the debate. Private exploration companies, such as Shell, have, over the years, spent €2 billion exploring unsuccessfully in Irish waters.

Over the past 30 years approximately 140 unsuccessful wells were drilled. Nowadays a single well costs between €20 million and €40 million to drill and the chances of success off Ireland's coast is less than 40 to 1.

Successive Irish governments, like many in Europe, have chosen to let private companies, such as Shell, bear the burden of this risk and cost rather than expose taxpayers to it.

The crux of the Corrib problem is mistrust and lack of real dialogue. Our communication with the community in Erris failed. For this we are responsible and have stated so publicly. Over the past year Shell has changed enormously. We have listened to concerns and have taken them on board. We are determined to proceed with legitimacy as well as legality on our side. We have learned from the past but we cannot live in it.

The Corrib gas project is something that benefits us all - it will bring security of energy supply to the country, jobs to the local area and opportunities for our talented young people to develop their skills working on one of Ireland's most exciting engineering projects.

It will also show the world that such exciting projects can happen in Ireland and can benefit our children and our society.

No problem has ever been resolved without dialogue. I am available at any time and willing to engage with anyone - in particular I appeal to those who have genuine concerns to talk to us. I believe firmly that the local community and Shell can live together safely and in a mutually beneficial way.

But don't take my word for it - speak to other local communities in Norway and the Netherlands who live close to Shell-operated facilities. I am more than willing to facilitate this in any way I can.

Terry Nolan is the Mayo-based deputy managing director of Shell Exploration & Production Ireland. He lives in Belmullet, close to the proposed gas terminal at Bellanaboy. An oil and gas industry veteran of 25 years experience, his previous assignment was as head of Shell's operations in Egypt, where he was responsible for four gas processing terminals and more than 1,000km of pipelines