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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 19:29 GMT
Gas pipeline causes bitter dispute

The site of the proposed Corrib gas refinery and pipeline near Rossport in County Mayo is the focus of a bitter dispute.

Locals who have gone to jail in opposition to the project and their supporters remain firmly against it, while Shell, its partners and the Irish government says it is vital to Ireland's national interest. Diarmaid Fleming reports on the different views.

Rossport is as quiet and remote a place as one can find in Ireland, set in stunning wild scenery in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht beside the Atlantic Ocean sweeping into Broadhaven Bay.

Shell wants to pump gas through this pipeline
Shell wants to pump gas through a pipeline

But the tranquillity has been shattered not just by the construction noise at the site of Shell's gas refinery nearby at Ballinaboy, but also by the bitterness of the dispute between the project's supporters and opponents.

Shell and its Corrib gas project partners Statoil and Marathon have decided to refine gas from the Corrib field 80km off the coast of Mayo on land, pumping it direct from under the Atlantic seabed to the new refinery.

The unrefined gas will pass through a high-pressure pipeline, using the great natural pressures under which the gas exists 3000 metres beneath the seabed to pump it through the pipe running across the seabed and over land, to the refinery terminal nine kilometres inland.

The pipeline became international news when five locals went to prison in 2005 after continually obstructing its construction on their small farms.

'Rossport Five'

The "Rossport Five" as they became known said they feared the high-pressure pipeline risked causing widespread death and destruction in their community if it were to burst.

Shell and its partners reject this entirely, and say the pipeline is being designed to the highest engineering standards and is safe.

But following a review after the men were freed from three months in jail, Shell agreed to re-route the pipe to move it further from the men's land, but this still does not satisfy opponents of the project.

They say the scheme brings industrialisation to an area of great natural beauty and will also risk bringing pollution, destroying their environment and forcing them to leave.

They want Shell to refine the gas at sea, bringing refined rather than unrefined gas ashore, which they say would be safer and would mean less industrial intrusion on land as a large refinery on the current 400 acre site would not be needed.

Protesters
Many local people oppose Shell's plan to build the pipeline

But Shell says that its plans have been approved by the Irish Government and its regulatory agencies, and have been backed by an independent safety report commissioned by the government.

Opponents say this safety report had too narrow a remit, not examining whether refining at sea was a better option than the current project.

They also cite a highly critical report from a public planning inquiry, which said the refinery site was chosen in the wrong place, a finding overturned after Shell submitted a revised planning application.

Protestors

Shell opposes refining at sea because it says it poses more dangers to its workers who would have to fly to and from work, and says the current scheme is the best solution for them economically and technically.

They also argue that the unrefined gas is of high quality and is safe to transport through the pipeline.

Opponents picket the site of the refinery each day, demonstrations which have been the scene of ugly protests between a huge force of police in what is an area with one of Ireland's lowest crime rates.

Protestors have accused the police of intimidation both in protests and away from the site, and have lodged complaints, although senior police officers say that the force has acted within the law and that all complaints will be investigated.

The police are also investigating what they say are a small number of possible incidents of intimidation of people working on, or supporting the project.

Many of the workers on the site are from Limerick, far from Mayo.

But some locals, businessmen and politicians say the project offers the chance of much-needed local employment.

Hundreds of jobs will result from the construction, although less than a hundred long-term jobs will be created at the refinery when it becomes operational.

Opponents of the scheme say that a hotel would create just as many jobs without the industrial consequences, and that locals will not gain from the provision of mainly specialist posts which will have to be filled by people with petrochemical industry experience from outside.

Shell told the BBC that it hopes to train locals to work in the refinery.

Critics of the Corrib gas project say there are wider issues involved. Successive Irish governments have relaxed taxation and licensing terms to make them more favourable to firms involved in petrochemical exploration.

The terms mean that Ireland grants leases without taking royalty payments or a stake in projects - as is done in some other countries - and imposes a tax rate of 25% on profits, against which companies can write-off the huge cost of exploration, meaning that in practice their tax liabilities should be much lower.

Work at the site
The project has created the opportunity for employment

Petrochemical companies like Shell and the Irish government say that these conditions are needed to encourage oil and gas exploration in Ireland.

But opponents say they are too generous, and question why Ireland, as they see it, is giving away a natural resource for nothing to companies which generate huge profits.

They also point out that the Norwegian taxpayer will benefit more from Corrib gas through profits flowing to Norwegian semi-state oil company Statoil, than the Irish taxpayer who will not enjoy any profit stream.

Critics also point out that while Mayo County Council has not struck any deal with Shell or its partners, Orkney Islands Council by comparison has netted around 200 million for its 20,000 population in fees from oil companies since 1975, in a deal it negotiated to allow the Flotta oil refinery in the Orkney Islands.

Shetland negotiated a similar arrangement for the Sullom Voe terminal.

The Irish government says the Corrib gas field is expected to provide up to 60% of Ireland's domestic gas requirements when it is up and running, replacing the Kinsale field off coast of County Cork which is running out, and says it will provide a welcome indigenous gas supply to Ireland.

Oil reserves

But critics argue that Ireland will benefit little as it will have to buy the gas at normal market rates from Shell.

They also question the strategic argument, citing statements from the Irish gas company Bord Gais which say that Irish gas supplies from gas interconnectors to the UK are very secure, and that "the possibility of gas supplies to Ireland from these sources being restricted is very remote".

But if Irish government publicity - from a symposium it organised last November to drum up interest in oil and gas exploration - is to be believed, then there are rich pickings lurking under Irish waters.

"Atlantic Ireland is one of the few remaining regions remaining in the North Atlantic offering opportunities to explore and develop major hydrocarbon resources," it trumpets, saying there are an estimated 10bn barrels of oil to be found.

At current prices of $60 a barrel, this means Ireland could be sitting on $600 billion of reserves - if the government's sales-pitch is to be believed.

When the Rossport Five and their neighbours began their remote village protest, it brought them to prison and pitted them against the Irish state and some of the biggest corporations in the world.

But long before Corrib gas has begun to burn ashore, their stance has certainly ignited a debate about the future of Ireland's natural resources.

Diarmaid Fleming presents a special radio documentary on the Corrib Gas controversy, "Big business, little people and the role of government", on BBC Radio Ulster Saturday 24th February at 11.30am and Sunday 25 February at 1630 GMT.


SEE ALSO
Bitter dispute over gas pipeline
03 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland

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