Page last updated at 08:46 GMT, Saturday, 26 April 2008 09:46 UK

Breakthrough in Shell gas dispute

Diarmaid Fleming
BBC News

oil refinery
Residents want the refinery relocated

People in Mayo locked in a long-running dispute with oil giant Shell have moved to break the stalemate.

Shell and its partners, Statoil and Marathon, are developing the offshore Corrib Gas Project.

Locals had demanded that gas from the Corrib field be refined at sea rather than at a huge inland terminal under construction in their community.

They now say they will drop their opposition if the refinery is relocated to a remote unpopulated area.

Shell and its partners, however, are not expected to support the plan which would involve scrapping extensive work already carried out.

Three Catholic priests in the parish of Kilcommon, Fr Michael Nallen, Fr Michael Gilroy and Fr Sean Noone, have proposed the initiative, because they say the project has caused pain and division in the community and will mean lasting damage unless agreement can be found.

A letter signed by those leading local opposition to the project said the plan provides a compromise to break the stalemate.

"This conflict has always been capable of being resolved by agreement and respect, and we call on all genuinely interested parties to respond positively to this move," the letter said.

"Failure to do so would inevitably see the situation revert to compulsory land acquisition, court orders, court cases, conflict, and more suffering and trauma for our families, neighbours and community.

"The current Corrib project has done untold damage to this community, the reputations of Shell, Statoil and successive Governments, and the integrity of numerous State agencies.

"We sincerely hope that this chance for agreement is not lost, as it represents a clearly long-overdue opportunity for resolution, agreement and healing."

The proposal would mean scrapping the new refinery already under construction, on what Shell says is Ireland's largest construction site, with 650 building workers.

The refinery, costing at least euro 200m to build, is 30% complete, although its construction has been delayed due to the protests.

Shell says it hopes that 80% of the work will be finished by the end of the year.

Neither Shell nor Marathon or Statoil have yet responded directly to the proposal.

However, Statoil said earlier this month, during a visit to Norway by a delegation of people opposed to the project, that the prospect of relocation of the terminal was "close to zero".

The protest over the Corrib Gas project made international news in 2005 when five of the locals - dubbed the "Rossport Five" - were jailed for breaking court orders by obstructing Shell, Marathon and Statoil from carrying out pipeline work on their land.


The dispute has been locked in stalemate since then.

Those who oppose the construction of the refinery in an area of spectacular wilderness in their Irish-speaking Gaeltacht community have continued to protest against its construction, with a large force of gardaí deployed to police pickets against construction workers entering the site.

The remote roads have seen occasional fierce clashes, with police baton-charging locals, while Shell has alleged intimidation against project workers.

The protestors have also opposed a new high-pressure pipeline to pump gas from the Corrib gas field 80km offshore in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland being routed near their homes.

A new route has recently been announced by engineers but is awaiting planning approval, replacing a previous route which placed the pipeline as close as 70m to one house without the consent of those living nearby.

Opponents say the terminal and the pipeline pose unacceptable safety and environmental risks and represent an industrial invasion of their area.

But the Irish Government backs the project, which it says is essential for the country's energy needs and have given generous tax concessions to petrochemical companies.

State planning and environmental agencies have also approved the project as safe and environmentally sound.

Others in the community support the project which they say will provide jobs.

The initiative sponsored by the priests represents a significant compromise by opponents of the project, who up to now have always demanded that the gas be refined at sea.

They now say a refinery could be built onshore at Glinsk, which is on unpopulated bogland along the coast.

But the plan would mean scrapping extensive works already completed by the Shell and its partners, meaning it is far from a simple option.

Speaking to the BBC, one of the five men jailed in 2005, Vincent McGrath, said he hoped the proposal was seen as a compromise.

"There has been great division in our community over this, some of which has been deliberately fostered. There is a lot of healing to be done. If the project continues there will be more and more suffering. This is an effort to provide a breakthrough, the priests have come up with this to break the stalemate," he said.

Bitter dispute over gas pipeline
03 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland

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