Watching the World: Seeking green in Ireland

March 28, 2005
St. Patrick's Day has barely come and gone, and we hear of troubles over natural gas in the Emerald Isle.

St. Patrick'a Day has barely come and gone, and we hear of troubles over natural gas in the Emerald Isle. Indeed, several farmers in Rossport, County Mayo, are standing in the way of Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s Corrib gas field project, 70 km off Ireland.

The farmers object to a 9 km section of pipeline, which will run under their lands from the field. Shell has gone to Ireland’s High Court to seek an injunction against the objectors. It claims to have the consent of all but 7 of 35 landowners needed.

Corrib’s discovery in 1996 was hailed as the beginning of an era in Irish energy development and was welcomed as a boost to the County Mayo economy.

The discovery was the first significant find offshore since Kinsale Head field in 1971. According to local observers, Ireland’s sole source of gas from Kinsale is in decline, and imports are growing in importance.

Reducing imports

In fact, about 82% of Ireland’s gas needs are met by imports, and it is expected that the country’s dependency on imported gas will reduce to about 50% when Corrib field comes on stream.

In County Mayo there was considerable initial euphoria that homes in major towns would be supplied with natural gas and that a clean, efficient domestic energy source would lead to increased investment and yield badly needed jobs.

But the project bogged down when seven of the local landowners withdrew their consent after initially agreeing to the project.

It is claimed that information, especially in relation to possible pipeline explosions, was withheld from people in the area by Shell representatives.

One man alleged pipeline failures caused more than 550 deaths around the globe as well as pollution and damage from fires following gas explosions.

That, despite an environmental impact report saying the chance of any gas leak is “infinitesimally small.”

Local charms

The debate does retain a refreshingly local flavor. One campaigner tells how she got a machine operator-a man named Sweeny-to stop work.

“I mentioned my grandfather; God rest him, he is long dead. I told him Anthony Sweeny would come back and haunt him,” the campaigner said, adding, “Whatever Anthony Sweeny’s spirit did it was enough for your man to switch off the machine.”

Charm aside, there are principles at stake.

Shell’s agreements with other landowners came with commitments to compensation, which includes an amount for “loss” while the pipe is being laid and the land restored.

For some, though, that is not enough.

“A small community [is] being forced to take the burden of the advantages accruing to Shell shareholders and their heirs in shareholding, with minimal common good,” said one. “We are exposed to the maximum risk for the most minimal return.”

Allowing for a bit o’ the blarney, it really seems that an even smaller community just wants more o’ the old green stuff.