We welcome the following guestpost from Amanda Slevin, a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology in University College Dublin. Her research, funded by the IRCHSS, looks at Irish government policy towards resources such as oil and gas.

When one thinks of civil disobedience and protesting in Ireland in recent years, the Shell to Sea campaign would, for most, immediately spring to mind. This campaign is often viewed as a community’s David and Goliath type struggle against Shell over plans to develop an onshore gas refinery and pipeline in Erris, North West Mayo. However, such a perspective tends to neglect the multifaceted role of the Irish state in this conflict. From creating the conditions for the exploration and production of Corrib gas, to the granting of various permissions without community consent, to the use of coercion (including heavy-handed policing) to repress dissent, much responsibility for the on-going Corrib gas controversy lies with the Irish State.

The conflict stems from the 1996 discovery of Corrib gas, some 80km off North West Mayo, for which a Petroleum Lease was granted in 2001 to a consortium which now comprises Shell (45% share), the Norwegian semi-state oil company Statoil (36.5%), and Vermilion (18.5%). The consortium planned to pump the unrefined gas from the seabed to an onshore refinery, 9km inland, where it would be refined. This initial proposal required the odourless gas to be pumped at very high pressure (up to 345bar) through Broadhaven Bay, close to several Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), to a site at Ballinaboy, beside Carrowmore Lake, the main water supply for over 10,000 people. The proposed pipeline route was 70 metres from homes.

When news of the proposed onshore refinery and pipeline spread among local people, many expressed concerns over health and safety and environmental risks, and conveyed a desire for the project to be situated elsewhere. Salter and Sullivan (2008) articulate four key areas of concern noted by the community, namely pipeline concerns; toxic waste issues; risk of accident; and human rights abuses (such as Shell’s role in human rights abuses across the world and little local consent for the project). Leonard suggests additional reasons for the community’s opposition, including a ‘local duty to defend families and property; the unsavoury behaviour of Shell and the government; the misrepresentation of facts on the issue; and the prioritisation of corporate profits over local concerns.’

A critical awareness of the consortium and the Irish State began to emerge with possible benefits from Corrib gas being queried. The Corrib petroleum lease was granted under the 1992 Licensing Terms for Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration and Development and results in limited benefits for the Irish State – no royalties, no profits, no guarantee of supply, and consumers have to pay full market prices for Irish gas and oil. Potential for financial returns from production arise from the 25% tax rate, against which companies can offset all exploration and production costs (accrued over a previous 25-year period). Shell to Sea, as the campaign against the onshore location of the project became known, have described these licensing terms as both a giveaway and a robbery of Irish gas and oil, while O’Toole, Storey and McCaughan and others have also problematised this issue at a time when the state’s finances are severely strapped.

Opposition to the project in its current form has remained consistent since 2001, yet this campaign is not anti-gas or anti-progress as some detractors propose. Indeed, the community and local parish priests have suggested compromises such as an offshore refinery (hence the name ‘Shell to Sea’) or locating the refinery at Glinsk, a remote onshore location east of the current refinery.  Despite the community’s efforts, Shell and partners continued with their plans and in a process of project-splitting were granted permissions separately for various aspects of the project, including planning permission by Mayo County Council for the refinery in 2001. Residents immediately appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála (ABP) and, after the second longest oral hearing in its history, ABP overturned Mayo County Council’s decision in April 2003 and refused planning permission with the location of the proposed gas terminal described as ‘the wrong site’.  Although planning permission for the refinery did not exist, in April 2002 Minister Frank Fahey approved construction of the pipeline, exempt from planning.

Alongside project-splitting, several legislative changes aided the project, including the Gas (Amendment) Act 2000, and the introduction of Statutory Instruments (SI 110 of 2000, SI 517 of 2001).  Accusations of political intervention in the Corrib gas project are rife and include unease around meetings between Shell and politicians, including then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2003. Brian Barrington’s report for human rights organisation Frontline highlights Shell’s Committee of Managing Directors’ concern around delays with the Corrib gas project in 2002 and draws attention to their recorded queries around whether they had ‘sufficiently well placed contacts with the Irish government and regulators.’

Shell later reapplied for, and was granted, planning permission for the onshore refinery in 2004 by Mayo County Council (MCC) and although locals appealed the decision to ABP, ABP upheld MCC’s decision without holding an oral hearing. In 2005, the community’s opposition entered a new phase when Shell was granted a High Court injunction against named residents to prevent them obstructing the construction of the pipeline on their private lands, to which Shell was granted access. In June 2005, five local men, (the Rossport Five – Micheál Ó Seighin, Vincent McGrath, Willie Corduff, Brendan Philbin and Phillip McGrath) were jailed indefinitely for contempt of court for refusing to obey this High Court ruling. They served 94 days in prison before their release when Shell dropped their injunction.

The jailing of the Rossport Five greatly mobilised support for the community’s struggle with Shell to Sea groups established across the country and overseas, nevertheless, Shell began to construct the refinery in spite of growing national and international criticism. In 2005, after years of pursuing their opposition through planning processes and legal channels, the community and its supporters began to engage in civil disobedience and halted construction of the refinery for over a year. However, in the autumn of 2006, the State took a firmer stance against protestors, with Gardaí violently breaking up protests and initially adopting a ‘no-arrests policy’. Storey refers to the 2007 Global Community Monitor report which found ‘there is evidence from videos of youth, women and the elderly being pushed and beaten by Gardaí without provocation. Even high-ranking officers were personally involved in beating up protestors’.  Protestors have also engaged in non-violent direct action in response to the laying of the offshore pipeline, works on Glengad beach, and drilling in Broadhaven Bay and Sruwaddacon Estuary, and were frequently subjected to similarly disproportionate reactions by members of An Garda Síochána.

In late 2009 the Department of Justice confirmed that €12.6 million had been spent on overtime and expenses on policing at the Corrib gas project from September 2006 to 14 December 2009. This figure does not account for ‘normal salaries’.  Since 2005, the criminalisation of activists has been a recurring form of State coercion and includes the jailing of local residents such as retired school Principal Maura Harrington, fisherman Pat ‘The Chief’ O’ Donnell and Niall Harnett. Members of the community continue to suffer human rights abuses and not only at the hands of the State as documented in Barrington’s report on the assault (and consequent hospitalisation) of Goldman Prize winner, and one of the Rossport Five, Willie Corduff by Shell’s security company IRMS in April 2009.

While political opinion is divided on the project, the weight of the Irish State appears to be behind the developers as apparent through the:

  • Licensing terms and conditions of the petroleum lease
  • Changes to legislation
  • Selling of 400 acres of Coillte (state) owned land for the refinery
  • Granting of permissions without community consent
  • State’s use of coercion

The community has entered its second decade of opposition to the project, and although the onshore gas refinery in Ballinaboy is near completion and the offshore section of the pipeline has been laid, Shell and partners do not have planning permission to construct the onshore section of the pipeline. The community’s stance on the environmental, health and safety risks of the project was recently vindicated by ABP’s November 2009 decision that up to half of Shell’s proposed route for the Corrib gas pipeline was “unacceptable” on safety grounds.

The autumn 2010 re-opening of the ABP oral hearing on the pipeline route refocused attention on the State’s role in the Corrib gas conflict and allowed members of the community to clearly express their continued opposition to the onshore location of the gas refinery and pipeline. As the community and its supporters anxiously await An Bord Pleanála’s decision on planning permission for the onshore pipeline, which if granted would permit construction of the final section of the project, the launch of ‘The Pipe’ with its honest telling of the community’s difficult and emotive struggle is both timely and appropriate.

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