"The Government have clearly sent the message to Shell, ‘you can do whatever you want’. Fortunately due to protest, the refinery remains unconnected to the gas field. If, as Shell planned, gas had been flowing by now, we would potentially all be dealing with a gas leak and explosion.”
December 8 2002
NICOLA BYRNE IN DUBLIN
FIRST there was Ogoniland, now there is Bogoniland. The oil giant Shell is embroiled in a bitter dispute in Ireland over plans to build a huge gas processing plant on one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of coastline.
The campaign against the plan has received the backing of Dr Owens Wiwa, brother of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro Wiwa, executed by the Nigerian government for his opposition to Royal Dutch Shell’s activities in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.
Under the £500m project, the Erris peninsula in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, would become home to one of the largest gas processing plants in Europe.
The area is famous for its spectacular and pristine stretches of coastline, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The gas platform will be built on peat bog, prompting protesters to rename the area ‘Bogoniland’.
Locals - backed by Wiwa, who travelled from his home in Canada to Ireland two weeks ago - are trying to stop Shell opening the plant, which aims to tap a substantial find of natural gas, 50 miles offshore.
But the Shell subsidiary, Enterprise Energy Ireland, has the support of the Irish government, which sold it the rights to the energy.
It argues that the Erris peninsula is one of the poorest parts of Ireland - an area which has never recovered from the depopulation caused by the emigration and famine of the 19th century.
Government ministers say the gas plant will open up a new clean energy supply and create jobs, as well as revenue, for the Irish exchequer.
The ‘Corrib’ gas fields have the potential to become the hub of the largest economic activity in the west of Ireland.
Unusually, EEI and its partners in the project are insisting that the gas be processed onshore and five miles inland.
Environmental groups have questioned why the processing can’t be done offshore. Offshore processing is the usual practice, but it is also more expensive.
The proposed gas pipeline will cut through one of the remote villages on the peninsula and fishermen claim that waste from the plant will destroy their business.
Ireland’s highest planning authority is currently conducting a public hearing into the matter, which was attended by Wiwa. He urged the Irish government not to 'negotiate away' its environment for 'the promise of a few jobs'.
Wiwa said: 'This is the same company which promised jobs in Nigeria. They made the same sort of promises in the initial phase and also said there would be no impact on people’s lives.
In the Niger Delta there were a few jobs initially in pipe laying, but very quickly local people were being told that they weren’t skilled enough and much of the process of exploiting the natural gas is now automated. In fact jobs were lost because the environment of farmers and fishermen was destroyed.'
Andy Pyle, managing director of EEI, insists the proposed plant would have 'no visual impact' on the landscape. He rejects calls for an offshore plant, saying it is not 'a viable economic option'. He told the hearing: 'We will be making every effort to have gas ashore by 2004.'
However, while the tribunal continues, last week one of Shell’s partners in the project put its share in the gas fields up for sale. The Irish government has expressed concern that environmentalists have threatened the future exploitation of the reserves.
A spokesman for the ministry of environment said: 'The worst crime would be if the gas went untapped. This is an energy resource for all the people of Ireland.'