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Corrib gas field debate in Dail Eireann

An Corrib Gas Field: Statements. Ceann Comhairle: Before statements begin, I remind Members that under long-standing rulings, decisions or judgments of a duly constituted court cannot be subjected to review or discussion in the House, as the House is not a judicial body. I realise the court’s decision is not as acute as before in this case. However, the matter has not been fully resolved in the courts and I ask Members to bear this mind when making their contributions.
Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Noel Dempsey): I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this matter, which has seen significant developments in recent days. I am delighted with these developments and they offer an opportunity for both sides to move forward.
Over the past three months, I have been endeavouring to create the conditions that would allow this matter to be resolved. During that time, following contact through an intermediary with the five men, I ordered a full safety review of the Corrib onshore upstream pipeline. Subsequent to this, I increased the monitoring and supervision of the project. On 25 August 2005 I appointed Advantica consultants to conduct this safety review and recently I announced a public consultation process, including a two day public hearing in the locality to take place on 12 and 13 October.
Deputies will recall that the Corrib issue was discussed in the House on a number of occasions last week. The Taoiseach commented on the matter during Leaders’ Questions and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher also addressed the House on the issue. I dealt with this matter in some detail at the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. All participants in these debates sought movement on the issue. Following the debates, I contacted both sides in an effort to break the impasse and indicated to them that the Government would appoint a mediator if both sides were willing to participate in a mediation process. I then called on both parties to create the conditions which would allow such a process to commence immediately. I am glad to report to the House that both sides responded positively to my initiative. It is my hope that the progress made to date, along with the appointment of a mediator, will allow all those concerned to participate fully in the public consultation process of the safety review and to work together to resolve the difficulties that have arisen.
The safety review of the onshore upstream gas pipeline will be thorough and comprehensive and will be carried out by independent internationally recognised experts. Advantica, the successful bidder, is a world leader in the development and application of advanced hazard and risk assessment technologies for gas pipelines. This safety review will examine critically all relevant documentation relating to the design, construction and operation of the pipeline and associated facilities. Advantica has been asked to identify deficiencies, if any, with respect to safety and to make recommendations as to how these can be remedied.
People who have views relating to the safety of the pipeline should have the opportunity to have those views considered by Advantica. Views are now being invited from local residents, communities and any interested party. Advantica staff have visited the Corrib site as part of their work and a two-day public hearing will be held in Mayo next week. The hearing will be chaired by John Gallagher S.C. This hearing is an opportunity for everyone who has concerns to clearly express those concerns and to ensure that all safety issues are brought to the attention of Advantica for full consideration.
Some comments have been made that the safety review will not deal with the issue of proximity. This is untrue. No safety review could take place without full consideration of the issue of proximity. It is the issue which has been at the centre of genuine local
concerns about the project. Advantica knows it is an issue which has to be dealt with fully and explicitly in its work. Another area of concern for local people is the ongoing safety of the pipeline if it was in place. It has been commented incorrectly that there is no State agency with specific responsibility for onshore upstream pipeline safety. This is quite simply untrue. I have specific powers with respect to the safety of the gas pipelines and I will use all legislative mechanisms available to me to ensure that safety in the installation and operation of such pipelines is being addressed and policed properly.
In order to allay fears, there is a necessity to spell out more clearly the safety regime which will be in place before the first gas flows through the pipelines from the Corrib field. It is my intention, as outlined in the House last July, that a clear regime for the operation and maintenance of the pipeline will be in place. This will be an open and transparent system and will ensure the highest standards of safety will apply. Obviously, if Advantica puts forward any recommendations on these issues in its final report, I will take them fully into account in the preparation of the final consents.
As the House is aware, both sides responded positively to my indication on Thursday last that the Government would appoint a mediator provided both sides were willing to respond positively. The response was positive, the injunction was lifted and the men were released. In consultation with both sides, I am now moving to identify a person or body who might be willing to undertake that work. It is my intention that by this weekend a list of possible mediators will be provided to both sides to establish their acceptability and to see if we can come up with an agreed name. As soon as that process is complete, the mediator will commence the work.
Despite comments reported in the media from sources in the local community, I am satisfied that both sides are now adopting a very positive approach to resolving issues between them. For example, both sides co-operated fully in a visit to the site this morning. At the request of local people, two local people were given access to see the work being carried out by the developers. This is a very helpful development and I thank both sides for their co-operation. I hope we can continue in this constructive manner.
I wish to take this opportunity to deal with the issue of the Corrib gas field in a more general manner. It is important to state clearly the factual and legal basis regarding the gas field. My Department is responsible for the regulatory aspects of petroleum exploration and development. Authorisations were granted for the Corrib gas field under a number of provisions. Under the Continental Shelf Act 1968, authorisation was given for the construction of the sub-sea facilities within the continental shelf designated areas. My predecessor also gave consent for the plan for the development of the field under the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act 1960. Under the Gas Act 1976, as amended, consents was given for the construction of a gas pipeline from the gas field through the offshore up to the terminal building. A foreshore licence was also granted under the Foreshore Acts.
In accordance with EU directives, an environmental impact assessment was carried out and an environmental impact statement was submitted with each application for consent or approval. It has been suggested that the terminal be sited offshore. I can only deal with the reality, which is that the proposal made by the developer to my Department was for an on-shore terminal only. This on-shore terminal was considered by the developer to be the most appropriate. I understand that it is now becoming common practice to place terminals on-shore rather than at sea. After consideration of a number of sites of entry for the pipeline, the developers proposed to bring it ashore at Dooncarton in Broadhaven Bay. Their proposal, which has since been approved, was to run the pipeline for 9 km to the terminal site.
That is the factual and legal position. Members of the House and some outside it have sought to broaden the debate to discuss our natural resources policy. I would be delighted to have a debate with the Opposition on this issue. I have previously outlined the three different options available to us to exploit our natural resources. First, we can leave the resources untouched; second, we can choose to spend taxpayer’s money on offshore exploration; or, third, we can license the private sector to do so. Is anyone seriously suggesting that we would leave our natural resources in the ground and untouched?
Mr. T Broughan (Labour): What is the fourth option that we discussed last week?
Mr. N. Dempsey: This would leave us 80% dependent on imports. Do people think the State should gamble as much as €20 million of taxpayer’s money per well at odds of over 30:1? The remaining option left to the State is to license the private sector to undertake this risk and accrue the associated reward after a 25% tax take. The rationale behind the current terms is to encourage exploration in Irish waters. Despite the allegation that these terms are overly generous, there have been very low levels of exploration over the past 30 years. For example, this year no well will be drilled. That puts paid to Deputy Broughan’s fourth option, of changing the terms and making them less attractive than they are at present.
Mr. T. Broughan (Labour): No it does not.
Mr. N. Dempsey: That would ensure that Deputy Broughan’s choice would be the first option, to leave them in the ground.
Mr. Broughan: I said we should learn from Norway.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I have stated previously, and will continue to state, that if the situation changes and Ireland emerges as a potentially productive area like Norway or the North Sea where there are some 7,000 wells, the Government will not hesitate to introduce terms which secure a higher take for the Irish people.
Deputies will have an opportunity to make statements on the Corrib issue. I look forward to a constructive debate. It is clear that while the matter is by no means resolved and that difficulties remain which must be resolved, significant progress has been made which can be built on through the mediation process as well as the safety review and the public hearing. I look forward to this progress taking place in the coming weeks.
Mr. Enda Kenny (Fine Gawl): I am glad this debate is taking place. This has proven to be a most controversial proposal. It has generated a great deal of debate, information and knowledge and, in some cases, has tended to split communities. The debate has centred on a number of areas, from the issue of natural resources in general to the process by which planning permission was approved for the pipeline from the well head to the landfall and from the landfall to the terminal and the examination process that was undertaken in respect of the terminal itself. The debate has also focused on issues of design and safety with particular reference to the section of pipe from the landfall to the terminal. Environmental issues and planning and safety in respect of the terminal have also been discussed. There is also the question of where we go from here.
I very much regret the manner in which this flagship project has been handled. The local authority, the Government and the Shell company were negligent in their duty. That forced local residents, because of their concerns about design and safety, to protest legitimately. Some of these people eventually found themselves in contempt of court and they served 94 days in prison. I am glad these men have been released back into their communities and families.
I was pleased to an extent that the Government took on board advice about being prepared to fund an international audit of safety in respect of the pipeline, that the company agreed not to do any work until next year on that section of the line and that following advice given by both the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party in terms of the distinction between criminal contempt and civil contempt, the temporary injunction was lifted last week and the five men were allowed to go home.
The Licensing Terms for Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration and Development, delivered by the then Department of Energy in 1992, contain a foreword by the Minister of the day, Robert Molloy. The fundamental point in respect of the Government’s policy base decision is that “Since the Government do not consider that direct State involvement in this area of activity is appropriate, the pursuit of their policy objectives requires that competent private sector companies be encouraged to invest in the search for and production of oil and gas in Irish waters.”
A number of environmental issues need to be dealt with immediately and they have been referred to by the engineering staff of Shell. They need to be dealt with particularly in regard to work undertaken on the terminal site at Bellanaboy. The Minister should ask Dúchas, or whatever is the appropriate body, for a list of what is required to be dealt with immediately. This list should be furnished to him tomorrow. I am quite sure everybody concerned will be happy to allow the rectification works to be carried out forthwith. The Shell personnel carrying out the works should be supervised to ensure they are carried out strictly in accordance with all the proper environmental guidelines, as laid down and required by law.
Let us consider what natural resources mean and could mean to the country. Bearing in mind that Ireland is in a very different position from Australia, New Zealand or Norway, it is appropriate that Bord Gáis, which I have not heard comment on this issue, should set out its views on the economic advantage to the Irish State, economy, people and industry of the supply from the Corrib field. What is the projected saving arising from our being able to use gas from the Corrib rather than importing it during the next 20 to 25 years, which is the projected lifetime of the field? What is the requirement for gas on a daily, monthly and annual basis, as projected by Bord Gáis? We should hear this because many say the gas affords no advantage at all to the State or its economy.
I have been contacted by at least a dozen major Irish industries that would like to install combined heat and power processors to drive their own generating plants and sell the remaining power into the grid. Bearing in mind the cost bases arising, Ireland has become uncompetitive. We have slipped from fourth to 26th on the competitiveness scale. There are jobs at stake by the thousand in many areas.
It is only appropriate that Bord Gáis should state what it proposes to do about the spur lines, six of which it mentioned when it made a presentation to Mayo County Council a couple of years ago. None of these spur lines has seen the light of day. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, who is absent, made commitments in his capacity as Minister at a public meeting in Belmullet to the effect that he would provide moneys from his Department to extend a spur line from Bellanaboy to Belmullet such that the people of Belmullet, the first town, should have the opportunity to avail of the benefits of gas. None of this has happened. We have had no response from the Government or Government agencies on the value of what is supposed to be done.
The ESB has restrictions on production capacity but it is very obvious that in the north west, particularly County Mayo, there is a scarcity of capacity. Why is the Government not now pursuing Rolls-Royce Power Ventures and the other companies that showed an interest in the beginning in providing gas-fired electricity generating stations, one of which was to be sited at Bellacorick, where the peat power plant closed resulting in the loss of over 200 jobs? The serious statement by Rolls-Royce Power Ventures seems to have been put on the long finger. I do not hear any response from the Government about the possibility of providing a gas-fired plant.
I am satisfied that the circumstances surrounding this debate can be focused and concentrated through the work of whatever mediator of sufficient stature is willing to take up this quite complex position. I hope the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has a measure of success in this regard. I was heartened by a number of interviews given by some of the men from Rossport. They indicated that they want to involve themselves in this debate. The fundamental question that must be asked and answered concerns whether the pipeline is safe. The Minister cannot sign the consent unless he is satisfied that the pipe to go underground is safe and will not compromise, in any way, any person’s safety or health. No project, big or small, national or multinational, is worth the loss of one life.
A number of other questions need to be asked. Is treated gas safer than untreated gas? Is untreated gas in a pipe designed to cater for a pressure of 345 bars as safe, less safe or safer than treated gas in Bord Gáis pipes such as those that have been in operation in the country for the past 30 years and those which are currently being laid at great speed from Loughrea through every village and parish on their way to the terminal at Bellanaboy? Will the discussion to take place at the two-day hearing and Advantica’s dealing with the issues of safety and design take into account the consequences of a full-bore rupture?
Will the Minister explain the minimum pressure required to bring the product from the reservoir to the terminal? The pipe is designed for a pressure of 345 bars, to operate, it is said, at a maximum of 150 bars, with a normal operating pressure of 120 bars. Can it operate at a pressure of 100 bars or 80 bars? Can it operate with untreated gas at the same pressure or at a lower pressure than that which now obtains in the Bord Gáis pipe? Is it possible to put reducers on the reservoir wellhead and give responsibility to the Environmental Protection Agency or some such body to ensure that the pressure is kept at the minimum operating pressure until the reservoir starts to empty after a number of years? The Minister has responsibility for the pipe. What agency will determine that it is safe at all times, day and night?
Although the Minister amended the Gas Act 1976, the pipeline from the landfall to the terminal should have been part of the transparent, accountable planning process in the first instance. This would have dealt with issues of design, safety and health and would not have resulted in ordinary people being put in fear of their lives because of legitimate fears over these issues. The aforementioned questions need to be asked and answered. Given that the Minister made an authorisation for the pipeline from landfall to terminal not to require a compulsory purchase order or planning permission, is it possible to vary the line of the pipe without its requiring, or its being seen to require, a new application for planning permission?
There are polarised views. People from certain organisations want the platform built at sea on a shallow-water terminal and the gas processed at sea. Many say they have no objection whatsoever to treated gas coming ashore. Others have different points of view. As a representative from County Mayo, I note that the issue has always caused some difficulty in that we did not submit the application for the onshore terminal, nor did we specify its design and features. However, the Government has issued authorisation for a pipeline to be laid from the wellhead to the landfall and the planning and judicial process has led to the granting of permission for a terminal. In the section in between there are 29 land-holders, five of whom have lodged serious objections regarding health and safety.
The mediator will be required to help focus on the next move. I defend the stance taken by my colleague, Deputy Ring, who was a strong advocate of the rights of the people of Rossport long before many others became involved. He has stood up for their rights and asked for the truth to be told. It was not Deputy Ring, the Fine Gael Party nor the Labour Party which applied for the terminal in the first place but we must deal with what we find.
Two elements of the project have been approved by the Government. One was approved by the Minister’s predecessor. The middle section is the source of the legitimate concerns about safety expressed by the local people. A two-day hearing, to be chaired by Mr. John Gallagher, will not be sufficient as it will not be possible to answer a range of questions in the short term. The Minister may be required to give considerably more time to allow for answers to be given to these questions.
I am somewhat concerned that while the Shell Corporation in Ireland is comprised of two units, Irish Shell and Shell E&P, when Shell Corporation decided to sell its Irish entity to an equity group, the regulations governing the rights and benefits of 150 employees working in Dublin in the areas of finance, administration, sales and product development seemed to be changed. Some have been employed by Shell for a considerable period. As this will be a share option and a share sale rather than a transfer of undertaking, the rights and benefits of these employees seem to have suddenly changed. A full Labour Court hearing will deal with this matter which should be taken into account by the Minister.
A major proposal such as this should have been dealt with differently by the Government. The entire community in the western region would have welcomed a major project if it had been handled with sensitivity, greater consideration and courtesy and greater awareness of the potential impact for good on the county, the region and the country as a whole. It has been a long road which has caused great stress and pressure for local families and communities have been divided. I hope that in this period of relative calm, under whomever is appointed as mediator, everybody concerned will enter into direct discussions about their legitimate fears for health and safety. When the safety audit is concluded, the Minister will be faced with the ultimate question. Taking into account his own words about the safety and concerns of local people, will he be sufficiently happy with the design and scale of the pipeline to sign the consent on behalf of the Government? If he is not satisfied, he cannot sign. I assume he will be required to make a statement on his intentions should that arise.
Mr. T.Broughan (Labour): I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael D. Higgins.
When the people of Dublin applauded the five released Rossport citizens on Saturday last, they were rightly acknowledging the great determination, courage and perseverance of the men from north west Mayo. The thousands who marched behind them and the bystanders who stopped to cheer instinctively understood the Rossport residents did not lightly give up their freedom for 94 days and only as a last desperate resort in a very unequal struggle with giant international exploration companies were they prepared to defy a court injunction. On each of my visits to Micheál Ó Seighín, Mr. Vincent McGrath, Mr. Willie Corduff, Mr. Philip McGrath and Mr. Brendan Philbin at Cloverhill Prison they always concluded our conversations by strongly stressing that the Corrib impasse was simply due to a matter of the health and safety of their families and community. It was a message which I took to the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, Shell, Statoil and all the other interested parties. Their release from prison after three months and the hopeful developments which facilitated their release are a vindication of their brave and resolute stand.
As day followed day during the imprisonment, like most observers, I was struck by the great support the men received from their wives and families. Outside the court, at public demonstrations and in Cloverhill Prison, the wives and children of the Rossport Five provided staunch and unyielding encouragement. The people of Rossport, Erris and County Mayo also gave their support. My key link during the sad events of the past three months was Mr. Harry Barrett and the Mayo branch of the Labour Party. Within days of the men’s imprisonment, Mr. Barrett suggested that we make urgent contact with our sister Labour Party in Norway and Statoil. It must also be acknowledged that the Shell to Sea Campaign provided a stream of information and support for the five imprisoned men on its website and through the media. Much of the information provided for me and other Dáil colleagues on the history of the Corrib project and exploration in Irish waters comes by way of the diligence of the Shell to Sea group.
It is clear that the Minister, his predecessors and the Taoiseach bear a heavy responsibility for the appalling mess which resulted in the imprisonment of the Rossport Five. Their gross neglect of Ireland’s natural resources, characterised by the minimal number of staff in the petroleum affairs division of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, led to the situation where a huge multinational such as Shell felt able to act with impunity and coolly disregard planning conditions and ministerial consent in the building of a totally illegal stretch of pipeline. How could four civil servants monitor a €1 billion major infrastructural project? Is it any wonder that the Minister and his Department had hardly a clue as to the size of the Corrib field or the likelihood of future discoveries off our coast?
At last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, a committee disgracefully filibustered and delayed in meeting during the men’s imprisonment by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats majority, the Minister could only wring his hands and make nonsensical comments about spending €10 million or €20 million of public money on drilling oil and gas wells in the Atlantic. I will repeat what I said to him on that occasion. There is another way which has been well trodden by the Norwegians, the Danes, the people of the Shetlands, the Newfoundlanders and many other smaller states and regions. It was best articulated by the Norwegian Government in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it told Shell, BP, Texaco and other representatives of big oil companies to leave the Norwegian oil and gas fields alone until “we know what you know”. When Norwegian engineers and scientists had learned what the oil industry knew, the Norwegian Government permitted exploration to proceed on terms which firstly benefited the Norwegian nation and its descendants.
The Minister will reply that only two applicants were involved in the recent licensing round and that the strike rate for our exploration in the Atlantic is only one in 30 wells. The level of independent expertise available to the Government has always been derisory and the Department has functioned - to paraphrase IBEC’s characterisation of CER - as the downtown office of Marathon and Shell.
Last Saturday I described the imprisonment of the Rossport Five as a wake-up call for the people. The suffering of the men and their families will have an enduring legacy if the House closely examines and profoundly reforms the legislation and planning procedures governing the licensing and development of our national resources. The legislative and exploration planning framework failed the people of Rossport and County Mayo. Throughout the long saga of the Enterprise Oil and Shell planning application, there have been continuous complaints about the 1960 Act, the 1992 licensing terms and the 1976 Gas Act. In 1987 significant changes were introduced by the then Minister, Mr. Ray Burke, which many citizens believe should be the subject of a tribunal of inquiry. In 1992 the Taoiseach and the then Minister, Mr. Bobby Molloy, issued the current licensing terms.
It is amazing that all aspects of the Corrib project were never discussed in detail in this House or Seanad Éireann in the ten years since the Corrib discovery. The long-standing and well based complaint from the Rossport Five and their supporters of the very small contribution of this €1 billion project to the economy and society of County Mayo and Connacht was never aired in this House until they began their imprisonment. We asked many questions over a period of months but the Minister’s Department provided very little information. It is clear that the governing legislation is defective in the manner it cedes incredible powers to the Minister of the day in respect of exploration without the ongoing scrutiny of the Oireachtas. It is also defective in regard to health and safety issues, as clearly identified by the Rossport community, as well as the absence of a role for the Environmental Protection Agency in the invigilation of exploration projects. The Labour Party believes all of these matters must be addressed urgently and calls on the Minister to bring forward amending legislation. The five Rossport citizens have always stressed to me that the total lack of consultation by Shell on their concerns and their real fears for the health and safety of their families has been the key motivation for their long struggle against the Corrib project in its current form.
Throughout the planning process in the 28th Dáil there were allegations, most notably by our colleague, Deputy Ring, that the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and the then Department of the Marine and Natural Resources were interfering in the process and seeking to intimidate Mayo County Council. As I outlined last week, it is also amazing that within days of the start of the general election campaign for this Dáil on 15 April 2002 the Minister of State approved the plan of development for the Corrib field under the 1960 Act, approved the giving of consent to construct a pipeline under the 1976 Gas Act and the giving of consent to construct sub-sea structures under the Continental Shelf Act. Incredibly, the Department announced these authorisations and then added that the petroleum affairs division was still in discussions with Enterprise Energy Ireland on the conditions attaching to each authorisation. The Minister of State also gave approval, in principle, to developments under the Foreshore Act.
The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has been quick to state how modifications of the licensing regime would deter potential exploration ventures, but this does not seem to be the case in other jurisdictions, most notably the United Kingdom where Chancellor Gordon Brown changed the British licensing regime in the 2002 budget and was met with denouncements much like the repeated comments of the Minister. However, subsequent licensing rounds in the United Kingdom resulted in an unprecedented number of applications.
Early in the period that I represented the Labour Party in this portfolio several Dublin citizens were killed in a house gas explosion. I drew the attention of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the complete lack of gas infrastructure in Connacht when the committee last questioned Bord Gáis Éireann. Against this background, the information I received on the Rossport pipeline from physicists such as Professor Werner Blau and other scientists is disturbing. The maximum allowable operating pressure of 345 bar seems incredibly high for a structure passing within 70 metres of a family home. We were repeatedly told that the design code used by Shell engineers to achieve a particular pipe wall thickness was the British Standard 8010, which I am informed is now obsolete. The pressure of gas proposed to be transported through the pipeline only 70 metres from a home equates to 4.4. GW or 2.2 kt of TNT. Therefore, the deeply held fears of Rossport residents have a strong basis.
The chief executive officer of Shell, Mr. Andy Pyle, told me that Shell and its partners had spent €6 million in the local economy since construction activity commenced and that the company was committed to making contributions to local community funds of €2 million. He also stressed that there would be 1,000 construction jobs, ancillary jobs and ultimately 50 permanent jobs at the refinery. However, people in north Mayo correctly point out that in the long term the addition to the economy and society of north Mayo and the rest of the county will be derisory. I call on the Minister to start today to greatly increase the gains for the local economy by utilising all our State agencies, Shell and Statoil to bring forward a plan of development which will ensure many of these resources come to north Mayo.
It remains an outrage that the five Rossport citizens should have had to endure 94 days in Cloverhill Prison to vindicate their position and secure an agreed mediation and safety audit structure. I am proud to record that the essence of the formula which finally led to their release was first proposed and advocated strongly by the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Rabbitte, in early July. I acknowledge a similar formula was put forward by the leader of Fine Gael and our colleagues in that party. At our meetings with the Minister, the chief executive of Shell, Mr. Andy Pyle, and his executives, Mr. Helge Helgestad and Mr. Peter Smith of Statoil, we constantly urged the lifting of the court injunction as the first crucial step in securing an agreed resolution of this affair. We were also the first Irish representatives to make contact with the Norwegian embassy and the outgoing Norwegian Prime Minister in July. The Taoiseach resolutely refused my request to recall Dáil Éireann on this matter while the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy O’Flynn, failed to call a meeting of the committee to help broker a solution. The fact that Norway was in the throes of a general election campaign also made it difficult to exert pressure on Statoil and Shell to change their approach and free the Rossport men. Now that they are free, I do not underestimate the difficulties which will have to be overcome in the coming weeks to move the Corrib project towards a fully agreed gas recovery development.
It is essential that the released men, their families and supporters are fully involved in all aspects of shaping a process to fully review the pipeline project. From my research and observations, I cannot see how the current pipeline proposal can be sustained even as part the Advantica review process. An offshore and undersea solution seems the only way forward. I salute the bravery and integrity of the Rossport Five, their families and supporters, and thank Minister, Mr. Andy Pyle of Shell and Mr. Helge Hatlestad of Statoil for restoring their freedom and putting in place a framework to break the impasse and bring this vital national resource at Corrib into production.
Mr. M. D. Higgins (Labour): I wish to respond to a commentary on the recent event of the release of the Rossport Five. A suggestion in yesterday’s editorial in The Irish Times reads:

... [the] President of the High Court, stood alone in recent weeks in upholding the rule of law, a duty he executed with exemplary even-handedness and for which he deserves to be thanked. During this controversy too many people, and most regrettably several members of the Oireachtas, showed a lack of understanding, or were simply unwilling to accept, the proper separation of powers that underpins the correct relationship between the legislature and judiciary.
Many of us who have been here for a long time perfectly understand the separation of powers and the appropriate relationship that should apply between the Legislature and the Judiciary. It is a source of concern for both if decisions were taken in regard to resources policy that were improper, not within the terms of the Constitution or not legally in the best interest of the people. It is a matter for both to seek discovery as to why, in regard to resources policy, the 1975 regime was changed in favour of the 1987 regime which, in turn, was changed in 1992, when an Irish resource, the foreshore, which was in the ownership of the people, was given away.
It is also in our interests that the Judiciary should comment on the inadequacy in regard to rights that arise in European law for citizens to protect themselves against an unknown, unspecified and unquantified danger. That might have been an appropriate reflection on the part of the Judiciary. In regard to not only matters of safety but also matters of planning, a good warning might have been given in respect of the impropriety of Ministers and Ministers of State asking their colleagues to come together to sign documents - as I was invited to do and refused - to short-circuit the statutorily independent planning process. There are many matters that could have been commented on in regard to the separation of powers, including the appropriate behaviour of the Judiciary and Parliament.
As someone involved in law-making, I raise the appropriateness of issuing orders that do not have the full force of the law, for example, the giving of an injunction on a fragile basis to protect something that is illegal. Again, it is a matter for the Legislature and the Judiciary to examine the appropriate interpretation of Acts and orders under the Foreshore Act. I am sure the matter of the moving of the foreshore several kilometres inland will be of some consequence for historians. People will examine this issue and speculate. I am sure it is a matter in regard to which Madam in The Irish Times might decide to read some of the articles of the columnists who write in her newspaper and she might be better informed before she decides to give lectures on the separation of powers.
This is an appalling ugly little editorial which suggests in some way that while justice stood on behalf of five people who had to spend over 90 days in prison to protect themselves and their families in the absence of appropriate legislation and support for the law, there are those who would prefer if everyone in the State was rolling over with their bellies up so as to say the people who do not give a damn about justice are those who matter because they are siding up and is not justice great? There are many questions to be asked about the legality of this. I hope the issue is suitably resolved but I reject the disgraceful nonsense of this editorial comment. We are all legislators and are aware of the complexity of this issue. We all know how murky its background is and we would all like to see the air cleared.Dr. Cowley (Independent): I wish to share time with Deputies Sargent and Ó Snodaigh.
Before I entered the Dáil in 2002, I had spoken about the profligate giveaway of our national resources. It is a matter I have raised from time to time since I became a Deputy. In 2000 the oil companies told us that the Corrib gas project was worth £2 billion. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, informed us on national television last night that it is worth €2 billion. At least we know the difference between the punt and the euro, even if Deputy Parlon does not. If it is €2 billion, as he would have us believe, the value of the gas field has dropped by approximately 25%.
In 2000 the going rate for a barrel of oil was $10. In 2005 it is six or seven times that, at $60 to $70 a barrel and Deputy Parlon informs us that Corrib gas has gone down in value by 25%. We know that the original value of £2 billion for Corrib gas was deliberately kept very low by the oil companies for the purpose of fooling us. After the Minister of State’s performance on television last night, it is obvious that the Government and the oil companies still share the cosy consensus which is as strong as ever. Who do they believe they are fooling? Even if the original 2000 valuation of £2 billion was correct, we know that by applying today’s values the Corrib gas field would be worth £12 billion. Adding the 25% currency conversion would put the value up to at least €16 billion.
In The Irish Times today, we saw the heroic Rossport five standing behind the illegal pipe, a testament to the arrogance of Shell which was asked by the Minister to dismantle it last July. It has still not been dismantled. It is unacceptable that these five honourable men went to jail for 94 harrowing days before the injunction brought by Shell and its partners was ended. However, they are still not free. Neither is Ms Bríd McGarry, the sixth Rossport resident, and the dangerous pipeline is still a reality. Applying any British, American or international standard - or even Shell’s own design standard - they are living within the kill zone of this pipeline, since 70 metres is certainly not safe.
I visited Norway just under two weeks ago with the Rossport five’s family members. We found the Norwegian people to be very straightforward and transparent. We met the top union people and we met the Norwegian oil and gas minister. We met the incoming government MPs and the senior vice-president of Statoil, Mr. Helge Hatlestad. They were absolutely amazed and astounded at what was happening in Ireland and did not have the full picture at all. They were determined to do something about the situation. This was a critical time to visit as negotiations were under way for a new government. The strong message from Statoil, which incidentally owns 25% of our Corrib gas field, is that such a scandalous state of affairs would not be tolerated in Norway. The State owns none of the field, despite the guarantees in the Constitution. The Norwegians believe in their democracy and assured us this could not happen in Norway, insisting that such a project could not go ahead without the consent of the people. Hot on our heels, Statoil’s second top executive, Mr. Hatlestad, came to Ireland and did what he told us he would do.
We have to be thankful, I suppose, that this is not Nigeria or the Rossport five would have been hanged long ago. I believe our visit to Norway tipped the balance in favour of the removal of this terrible injunction. The Government is up to its neck in all of this, thanks to a corrupt former Minister, Ray Burke, and the current Taoiseach, who was then Minister for Finance. We gave it all away even before we got it, although it is ours under the Constitution. At the same time, serious deficiencies exist in our health and social services due to funding difficulties. It is a scandal.
Everyone knows that the former Minister for the Marine, Deputy Fahey, did away with any need for planning permission for this unique pipeline. He is currently a Fianna Fáil Minister of State from Galway West. The decent people of Galway, his constituents, rallied with supporters of the Rossport five on their peaceful demonstrations. These farmers from Gort, Ballinasloe or wherever, understood what it must be like to be thrown off one’s land and have it given away to a powerful interest. They were not strangers to that. It happened before in our history. The people of Gort and the people of Ireland understood all this and came out strongly in support of the Rossport five. That support has grown to 100%. They surely understand what Michael Davitt fought for and how their own Government facilitates the taking of that land under compulsory requisition orders by the State. The people who should be protecting them were doing them down on behalf of the oppressor, Shell, the oil multinational.
If this injunction is made permanent this month, I assure the House that they, too, could end up in jail if the State wants their land - or if it wants the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s land or mine. They will resist it being taken and will end up in jail as a result. Nothing could be more certain. They could end up in jail just from thinking bad thoughts about Corrib gas. People in their thousands have supported the Rossport five. As I said at last Saturday’s rally, the human spirt cannot be bought or sold. Neither can it be imprisoned, as the Government found out. These brave men refused to give in to Shell. They have done us proud and are still doing us proud. We need a full comprehensive review of the Corrib gas project, not a repeat of the inadequate Shell-influenced company reviews.to date, which are ridiculous.
This is a narrow peninsula, a space which cannot accommodate a unique pipeline and a village full of houses. This problem must be resolved. It is a scandal and thank God these five brave men are free and are now with us.
Deputies: Hear, hear.
Mr. T. Sargent (Greens): Táim-se féin agus tá an Comhaontas Glas saor bhuíoch do muintir os Ros Dubhach agus don cúigear fear mar gheall ar an fód a sheasamh in aghaidh mí-iompair an Rialtas agus Shell, den cuid is mó, ins an scéal ar fad. Ní raibh suim ag a lán daoine. Ní raibh suim ag na meán cumarsáide, don cuid is mó, sul ar chuireadh na fir seo i bpriosún. Ni nach ionadh, bhí ceisteanna áárdu ag mo chomhghleacaí, Deputy Eamon Ryan, anseo, agus agamsa agus ag daoine eile le blianta, Dob é an Chomhaontas Glas an chéad phártaí ag an am chéile a chuir an cheist in iúl do na húdaráis pleanála i gcean ar an bpíopa líne ó Craughwell go Bellanaboy chomh maith.
This situation, although the Minister incorrectly tries to make it otherwise, is not normal. He talks about the onshore option being increasingly common, as if this was comparable to what happens in other countries. I have been to Rossport and seen that the pipeline route will, in the case of one house, run across the driveway. As Deputy Cowley mentioned, 70 metres is most certainly within a kill zone. It is amazing how this situation has arisen. I am sure we are not going to obtain all the answers today. It is clear, however, that many questions need to be answered. Reference was made to 1992 when the deal was struck behind closed doors, without civil servants being present, between the Minister at the time, Ray Burke, and the exploration companies. An explanation as to how that was allowed to happen without civil servants being present definitely needs to be investigated. It is also important to get answers as to who approached whom. I do not believe that the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, was able to say whether Coillte or the then Minister, Deputy Fahey, approached Enterprise Oil, or whether the exploration company approach Coillte. Apparently there are no records in the Department on that matter. That is the core reason that the House is debating this matter.
Why would a company want to venture nine kilometres into a bogland of its own accord? I believe many questions still need to be resolved before this matter is resolved. When the Minister talks about “both sides”, I believe we also need to get clarity on that matter. This is not a so-called game of two halves or two points of view. This is where the Minister, the Department and the State have become players in a three-way debate between the company, the Government and the community. Any mediator must mediate between the three main players involved in this issue. I ask the Minister to recognise that he, on behalf of the Government, is one of these players. He is not a neutral bystander who can sit on the fence and expect the matter to be resolved by putting the local community and the company into the ring.
In so far as we have access to the relevant documentation - discovery is still pending on a significant number of documents - this is another example of legal questions arising with regard to the veracity of documents. The “Dear Brian” letters written by the then Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, are spoken of as if they are legal documents and, therefore, constitute consent. I have no doubt that a considerable amount of the documentation could be challenged on the basis that it is not based on best legal precedent and is not legally trustworthy or possible to uphold.
The Corrib pipeline is unprecedented. Other onshore terminals are located either on islands or on the coast and certainly do not run nine kilometres across bogland, as is proposed in the case of Bellanaboy. The pipeline was exempted from an oral hearing in questionable circumstances and a compulsory acquisition order was issued by a private company. Giving a private company power to issue such orders has opened up a dangerous precedent for the future.
The Government must recognise that it has got itself into a mess. A safety review and public hearing are under way and a legal process is ongoing before the courts. Whether either process will amount to a final decision is open to question. Alternatively, will the mediation process to which the Minister referred result in a final decision, even if is three-way? The Minister must provide clarity to allow us to see some light at the end of this very murky pipeline.
Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Sinn Fein): Cuirim fáilte roimh saoradh Chúigear Ros Dumhach ar an Aoine. Ba bua é don chúigear agus dá gclann as a gcrógacht agus an cur chuige a léirigh siad thar tréimhse 13 seachtain i ngéibheann. Ba bua é chomh maith dona mílte i Maigh Eo agus mórthimpeall na tíre seo a thacaigh leo agus a ghlac páirt sna agóidí, a chur cártaí poist chuig an cúigear agus a léirigh i mbealaí difriúla a dtacaíocht don fheachtas. B’fheachtas seo a tharraing daoine le chéile le dearcaidh polaitiúla difriúla agus daoine gan dearcadh polaitiúil ar bith. Léirigh sé deighilt bunúsach idir páirtithe polaitiúla agus fiú laistigh díofa. Bhí léiriú air sin ag cinnirí na trí mhórpháirtithe sa Teach seo faoin deighilt sin.
Ba deighilt í idir iad siúd a sheas go hiomlán ar thaobh iad siúd a bhí ag léiriú míbhuntáistí eacnamaíochta agus timpeallachta a bhí in ndán dúinn de thairbhe phíobán na Coirbe agus ar an taobh eile iad siúd a bhí ag tabhairt tacaíochta agus tús áite go hiomlán do spéis agus buntáistí Royal Dutch Shell. Let us be clear about that.
As the Corrib gas field development stands, neither the people of County Mayo nor the citizens of the State stand to gain in any real way from the gas if it is brought on shore. Muintir Iorrais will have a dangerous pipeline at their back doors, carrying gas to which they will not even have access. This gas will be piped in by a company whose annual turnover is bigger than the State’s GDP and which has, to all intents and purposes, been given the gas field for nothing. Surely it is an outstanding act of generosity for a Government to allow the company in question to write off all its tax and charge the full price for selling the gas it extracts to Bord Gáis, which this week imposed a massive price increase on its customers, many of whom already face fuel bills they cannot afford.
We know who we have to thank for this gift, namely, individuals such as Ray Burke who was no doubt motivated by the highest sentiments when he made the original deal. Sinn Féin has called for a full inquiry into why and how multinational companies were handed over control of our natural resources at terms unequalled anywhere else on the planet. I reiterate that demand and call for any review of the Corrib gas field debacle to include full disclosure of all aspects of the deal. What, for example, were the terms under which the former Minister of State at the Department of Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, signed over Bellanaboy Wood for the terminal site? Why were parts of the report written by Kevin Moore for An Bord Pleanála and detailing the lack of economic benefits ignored? Why misleading information was given regarding the potential disaster which might have occurred had the pipeline been in place at the time of the Dooncarton landslide? What did the Taoiseach discuss with the president of Shell when he met him? If these and many other questions are to be answered, any inquiry or judicial review needs to be carried out on the basis of full disclosure. All minutes from the Department relating to the project must be made available, as must the minutes of the Taoiseach’s meeting with the Shell president. After years of hiding behind the alleged lack of ministerial responsibly for Coillte, all documents relating to the transfer of Bellanaboy Wood must be placed in the public realm.
The Rossport men and their families and supporters have won a tremendous victory. As Owen Wiwa, the brother of murdered Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, said on Saturday at a Dublin rally for the men, “Such victories are rare.” It is, however, only a temporary victory and the real issues have yet to be resolved. Unless they are resolved, the pipeline moved offshore and the State changes the licensing and revenue conditions governing the project, the campaign against the development, as currently proposed, will continue.
Mr. Carty (Fianna Fail): The discovery of natural gas off the County Mayo coast was broadly welcomed by most people in the county and elsewhere as a wonderful boost to meeting Ireland’s energy needs for the next quarter of a century. When it was eventually announced that the gas would be brought ashore in Mayo a bright future was predicted for the county. The planning and construction of this major project has been fraught with difficulty in recent years, culminating in a number of people finding themselves in jail for 94 days. The recent release from jail of the Rossport five is welcome news for their families and the general Erris community. I hope it will pave the way for constructive and meaningful dialogue that will result in a speedy resolution to the safety problems with the gas pipeline.
It is unfortunate that the men in question found themselves in jail for taking action in response to fundamental fears about the safety of the project. All disputes are eventually resolved by dialogue in a calm and meaningful way, with each side listening to the point of view of the other, and this dispute is no different.
I compliment the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on his proactive role in attempting to break the impasse in this dispute by having the men released from jail. Once the dispute became a subject of the courts, it became ever more difficult for the Government to intervene. Since the imprisonment of the five men, the Minister has endeavoured at every opportunity to create the conditions which would allow the dispute to be resolved. A full safety review of the Corrib onshore pipeline has been initiated, while the monitoring and supervision of the project has also increased. In addition, Atvantica Consultants will conduct a full safety review and a public consultation process, including a two-day local oral hearing scheduled to take place later this month. People who have views on the safety of the pipeline will have the opportunity to have their opinions considered by the consultants and local residents, communities and interested parties have been invited to express their views on the issue. These are all positive steps taken by the Government and the Minister to further an open and transparent solution to the ongoing problem. The matter was also discussed recently at the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, during which all participants in the debate sought movement on the issue.
In recent times, it has become clear that certain political parties were exploiting the Rossport five to further their own political agendas. Intimidation was the order of the day, as people with genuine concerns about the plight of the men who tried to mediate in some way were subjected to harassment. The involvement of those people or their accomplices in upcoming discussions will do nothing to promote a satisfactory resolution to this problem that has plagued the community of north Mayo over the past three months.
I warmly welcome the fact that in the past week both sides have taken steps forward and that the five men have returned to their families. I welcome the fact, mentioned earlier by the Minister, that representatives from both sides have gone into the site today. This move, along with the appointment of a mediator by the Government, will allow all those concerned to participate fully in the public consultation process of the safety review and I hope that both parties will create the conditions which will allow such a process to commence immediately. I urge those involved, working together in an open manner, to reach a solution that is acceptable to all.
Ms Cooper-Flynn: I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. First and foremost, I welcome the release of the five men from Rossport who spent 94 days in jail. It was a terrible tragedy that their families and communities were deprived of their company for that period. We in this House must ensure that is never repeated.
Throughout the course of the 94 days, Shell stated that it was impossible illegally for it to lift the injunction and yet eventually that is exactly what it did. I suppose the question arising is why it took so long.
While I welcome the Minister’s, announcement to introduce a mediator, and also the fact that he received a positive response from both sides, it was not exactly a new suggestion because when we debated this matter in the House at the end of June he suggested that he would be prepared to appoint a mediator. It is a shame that, unfortunately, 94 days passed before we could get some agreement on that particular matter and before the men could be released from jail.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement regarding the safety review on the pipeline, which is obviously central to this matter, and the decision on mediation. There are many questions about this project which must be answered. The issues fall into three categories. First, there is the local issue of the safety of the pipeline, which is of concern to the immediate community of Rossport, to the people of north Mayo and, indeed, to the wider community of Mayo, and which was central in terms of the jailing of the five men. The issue of gas supply to the region, which is a regional issue, is the second matter which really needs to be examined. The third issue, which is of national import, is the return to the Exchequer which has been mentioned here by all of my colleagues today. Each of these issues must be dealt with individually.
Starting with the local issue of the safety of the pipeline first, last week at the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources I put a number of questions to the Minister about the pipeline and the purchase of the site from Coillte for this terminal. I note in his response today he stated that he can only deal with the proposal that was put to him by the developer but, in fact, he was obliged to consider the suitability of that site because it was nine kilometres inland and, as he correctly stated earlier and at the committee last week, he has the ministerial power to examine the ongoing safety of the pipeline. Central to that was the location for the terminal building. Any lay person would imagine that such a facility would be close to the shoreline, would be a shallow water platform or might be on an offshore island. This was one of the points put forward by the Shell to Sea campaign in one of its comments in the national newspapers. It is a question that has not been addressed properly, whether or not alternative sites were considered because of the safety aspect of bringing a pipeline nine kilometres inland. It is a question that must be dealt with under the Advantica assessment, which will take place in the near future.
At last week’s committee meeting I asked the Minister a question and I thought he might have addressed it today. On the sale of the site, he mentioned that Coillte has a responsibility to bring any decision to sell a site before its board and that a proper evaluation of the site would be carried out. However, at the committee I asked the Minister whether Coillte had breached its own guidelines in the sale of that site by not going to public tender. While we in this House all know that guidelines are not necessarily legally binding, they do set out what is the most desirable procedure for the sale of the site in the first instance and this matter must still be addressed at this stage.
Many local safety issues, particularly the proximity of the pipeline to the houses of the individuals concerned, arose at the committee meeting. We all noted from the Minister’s reply at the committee last week that the Johnston report states that the minimum distance from any house would be 70 metres. I asked him from where that standard came, a question which remains unanswered. It does not comply with BS 8010 or the new equivalent, PD 8010. From where did that standard come? I welcome the fact that the Minister stated clearly this evening that this issue will be dealt with seriously under the safety review. It does not seem to fall under any particular standard and most people would be anxious to know from where that particular standard came in the first instance.
The second matter I mentioned is the regional issue, the question of what exactly are the benefits to the people of Mayo. This is an important question for them. Deputy Carty and the other Members present stated that, at the outset, everyone from County Mayo welcomed the development of the Corrib gas field. We welcomed it for one reason only, which was that we perceived that there would be benefits to the people of our county arising from this find off our shoreline. We did not welcome it because County Mayo would be used as some vehicle to transport the gas off our shoreline, through our county, to the benefit of other people, either in Ireland or in other countries, wherever this gas will ultimately be used. I suppose in one sense it was perhaps selfish but we in County Mayo believe we have a right to derive some benefit from a find arising off our shoreline. At the committee I asked the Minister what will be the benefit for us. I did so with serious intent because it has been asked, I can assure him, by all of the people of County Mayo. I was disappointed with the glibness of the Minister’s response. I say this, with respect, because I want him to realise that this is important. I asked him would he direct Bord Gáis, or provide a PSO, so that spur lines might come off the infrastructure, which is currently being laid the length and breadth of the county. While there is the situation in Rossport, literally every village in County Mayo has a pipeline going through it that is being laid by Bord Gáis. Is the Government prepared to issue a PSO to ensure that the people of County Mayo derive benefit through gas connections for our major towns? That is a serious question. When I asked about the matter at the committee, the Minister stated that whatever the chance we have if the Corrib field is developed, we have no chance whatsoever if it is not. That does not address the question or give it the seriousness I believe it deserves. It is an important issue. It was much touted at the outset of this project that there would be a benefit to the people of Mayo. Last week at the committee the Minister articulated the benefits in terms of jobs and perceived industrial development that might follow but that will only happen if the towns in County Mayo are connected to this supply.
The third issue, which has been articulated by most Members, is the national issue. The latter is the benefit that the State derives from our natural resources, particularly from the licensing of this gas field. While the Minister explained the three various options in this article of 8 September 2005 in The Irish Times, at the committee last week and here again today, the reality is that the people of Ireland find it difficult to understand why we are not getting any benefit from this natural resource which is off our shoreline. He mentioned that we cannot invest €20 million to develop a single well. He mentioned at the committee that there were 121 wells drilled off our shores but only four commercial developments of those have been successful. The Corrib field, in itself, consists of five wells, all of which are commercially viable. He mentioned earlier - he also stated this in his article in The Irish Times - that if conditions in the country improve, he will not hesitate to renegotiate the terms for the benefit of the Irish people. However, I am alarmed to hear him state that this would be where a situation similar to the North Sea, where there are 7,000 productive wells, might arise. Surely he is not suggesting that there must be several thousand productive wells off our shores before the State can renegotiate a more beneficial deal for the people of Ireland. It is clear to everybody that we will have to purchase the gas at the going commercial rate and I am sure the 25% increase in the price of gas in the past week has not gone unnoticed.
All of these matters contribute to the fact that the people of Ireland, and particularly those in Mayo, want to know what benefit is in this project for us. We are not anti-development in any way. In fact, we are pro-development. We are pro-development provided that the safety of our people is guaranteed and also provided that there is something beneficial in it to the county and the country at the end of the day.
I urge the Minister to take these issues on board. Every citizen in County Mayo and throughout the country has asked for this during the past 94 days. If there is one thing the jailing of these men has achieved, it is that it has crystallised many of the issues for the people. It is no harm that they have been brought into the public domain. The people are much more knowledgeable today than they were three months ago with regard to concerns about our natural resources. I ask the Minister to address these concerns.
Mr. Durkan (Fine Gael): I wish to share time with Deputy Ring. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this matter. We should all be glad, even at this late stage, that we have arrived at a situation where the men who were in prison are free. If one were to evaluate the history of this situation from last June to today, it would be a great lesson in how business should not be done. Matters were allowed to drag on day after day throughout the summer months and nothing appeared to happen.
I compliment those who were involved and who made constructive suggestions throughout this time with a view to achieving a resolution because it is not always popular to be constructive in such situations. We could have reached the current position in the first three or four days as easily as it has been reached after three months. It is disgraceful that, in a democracy, people must spend three months in prison before the wheels are set in motion to lead, eventually, to their release.
If the planning or consent processes were wrong, why was it not possible to review them earlier? Why was it necessary to leave the men in prison for the duration? Throughout that period Deputies Kenny and Ring made numerous suggestions as to how to resolve the situation. Deputies Broughan and Rabbitte did likewise, as did many others. They spent much of their time in the summer attempting to intervene in a constructive manner that would enable the situation to be defused.
At last Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, it was obvious from the start that we were going nowhere because all we were doing was arguing the rights and wrongs of the case all over again. There was nothing by way of mediation, resolution or achieving what I hope was the objective.
The House debated this issue in the last days of June in respect of a Private Notice Question to which everybody contributed. The Minister, knowing what he knew, being the ultimate arbiter in terms of consent and knowing that he alone had the ability to appoint a mediator of sufficient stature to be acceptable to both sides, should have taken the initiative at that time. The critical issue is the appointment of such a mediator who will be recognised and accepted by both sides. I hope the Minister accepts this suggestion, which has come from this side of the House. If this is done, the problem will be resolved. If it is not done, we will be here in three or four months having the same debate and possibly repeating the history of the disaster of the past three months. That should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to happen.
We, Shell and everybody else are bound by the laws of the land. We must all comply with planning permissions and consents and must do what is required by the laws of the land. If we deviate from this or if the Minister allows anybody to deviate from it, we have a serious problem because it brings our laws into disrepute. If we bring laws and regulations into disrepute, particularly those relating to planning permissions and associated issues, we will have a serious problem. In these circumstances, I depend on the Minister to ensure that he uses his influence. He is the only one in a position to give the necessary assurances to both sides. He is in the driving seat and can tell the mediator what he can offer in response for whatever. Nobody else can do that.
I do not want to pile coals on the Minister’s head. However, he should remember that this issue has been sitting around for the past three months. Some people would say it has been present for three or four years. The pertinent issue of the men being in jail has been around for the past three months. When such individuals are in jail, people say they are doing a great job and that the country is behind them. This is thin consolation for those who are in prison and nobody should try to tell me any different because I have been there and done that.
Instead of going back over what has happened, we should try to avoid a recurrence and address the issues that caused it rather than broadening the debate to include many extraneous matters. The issue to be resolved relates, in the first instance, to health, safety and planning. This matter falls to the Minister in terms of his ability to grant or withdraw consent. This fundamental issue affects the system in so far as the Corrib gas field is concerned. Resolution of the issue will not be an easy job. The situation would not have continued so long if it was.
It is important the Minister concentrates on the job and that he ensures, whatever else happens, that the ultimate in terms of health and safety requirements are met. Failure to do this could lead to a serious situation arising for the people in the area and for people in other areas for whom a precedent may have been set. Deputy Ring will have more to say on this issue as he is a local representative.
I believe the unresolved planning, consent and legal issues can be amicably resolved if there is a general application to the issue and if the Minister uses his positive influence on all concerned, through the mediator, to achieve the result desired by all.
Mr. Ring (Fine Gael): I am glad the men are out of prison and pleased they are at home with their wives and families. Many of the other residents of the area who were not in prison have been badly affected by this situation over the past number of years. Many families in the Rossport-Bellanaboy area have suffered and wished they never heard the word “gas”. They have been frustrated by Shell, Enterprise Energy Ireland, Mayo County Council, the former Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Fahey, and the Government.
I want to go back to 2001 when the planning application came before Mayo County Council. I was one of the few members who spoke against it at the council. I will always remember the night when Enterprise Energy Ireland came into the council meeting and told us the wonderful things it would do for Ireland, County Mayo, Rossport, Bellanaboy and the people in Erris. A few weeks later, when it got the Queen’s shilling from Shell, it was not long in selling the gas field to that company and forgetting the promises it made to the people of County Mayo.
Mayo County Council must shoulder much of the blame on this issue. In 2001 the planning application was granted by the council in very quick time. I recall that an official rang me to inform me of it at 5.05 p.m. on the Friday of the August bank holiday weekend. The permission was granted in this manner to frustrate the residents and the people objecting to it so that they would not have sufficient time to put their objections to An Bord Pleanála.
At the oral hearing, Mr. Kevin Moran, the inspector on behalf of the State, represented An Bord Pleanála. He listened to the concerns of the residents, the experts and everybody who was there and made the decision that the project was not fit for Erris. He opposed the second application that was made because, according to him, a project of this nature had never been pursued anywhere else in the world. He was overruled by the board on that occasion. He was the man who sat down to listen to various people and to study the matter. Although he travelled around the world to examine projects of this nature, he was overruled by the board.
Mayo County Council did not behave well in this instance because it did not listen to the people. If the county manager and the council’s officials told Enterprise Energy and Shell when this project was first mooted that they would have to develop the facility at sea, we would not have encountered the problems with which we are familiar and the five men in question would not have been obliged to spend 94 days in jail. Many families in Rossport and Bellanaboy have suffered and many people have been disturbed by the gas project.
I would like the experts in The Irish Times, particularly the people who write editorials, to remember that Rossport, like most places in Erris, is a quiet, beautiful and nice place. Those who proposed to develop one of the biggest projects in the history of the State in a place that does not have much infrastructure thought they could bully the local residents, for example by taking their land. They thought they could do what they liked because they did not think the people of Bellanaboy would stand up and be counted.
As a Member of the Oireachtas, I know I cannot overstep the line in respect of the courts. However, legislation needs to be introduced to ensure that Irish citizens who have serious objections, like the people of Bellanaboy, do not have to mortgage their houses when they go to the courts. I refer to people who have recourse to the legal system because they have been failed by their local authorities and their elected representatives. Ordinary people should be able to go to the courts without being worried that their lands, homes and farms will be robbed from them. The courts system should not just be for the rich - it should be for all the people of this country.
I admit to the residents of Rossport and Bellanaboy that their elected public representatives did not do enough. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, spent weeks travelling up and down to County Mayo. There is a file in Mayo County Council which proves that his officials wrote to the county manager asking him to notify them when the application had been dealt with. The Minister of State wanted to be the first to be notified of whether the application had been granted. The county manager scribbled a note to tell his officials to notify the Minister of State. That is not the way the planning process works in this country. The man in question went above and beyond the call of duty in respect of this project.
The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, challenged the Opposition Deputies today to a debate on natural resources. As part of that public debate, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, should sit on the Government benches to answer many unanswered questions about his role in this project. His officials should also be allowed to speak about the manner in which they were bullied. I do not blame them for anything that was done within the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources - they were just doing what they were ordered to do by the Minister of State. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, knows all about how the system operates.
I hope we have learned a lesson from what happened in County Mayo. Members often speak about dialogue. There will be a mediator in this case. I was glad that the Minister used his influence with Shell. We called for such a move on the last Dáil sitting day before the summer recess. I agree with Deputy Broughan that it was a disgrace that the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources did not see fit to meet for three months until the day before the Dáil returned. It was a disgrace that there were not enough people to sign a quorum to call a meeting of the committee, so that the Minister would have to address its members. It is amazing that the Minister, Shell and the five men in question became involved in discussions two or three days after the Dáil returned. I do not understand why the five men had to stay in jail for 94 days. There was no need for them to spend a single day in jail. The Minister could have intervened or Shell could have collapsed the injunction. It was wrong that the men had to go to jail. They felt compelled to serve a prison sentence because they felt let down by the system, particularly by the council. It was wrong that all the resources of the State were used to support Shell.
I hope the mediator who is appointed will ensure that the people of Erris are listened to on this occasion. This is not about money or land - it is about health and safety. It is about ensuring that people can live in their own homes in safety. They do not want to be blown up or to receive advice from people who think the pipeline is safe. Of course it will be safe until the day it explodes. When that day comes, nobody will take responsibility for the tragedy that will follow. People will run for cover by blaming everybody else and nobody will take responsibility. I want the gas to come onshore but there is only one way that can happen. The Minister needs to talk to Shell. If he had done so two years ago, we would not have the problems we have now. If people had listened to what I said during a county council meeting in 2001, we would not have the problems we have now. The gas would be coming in now if Shell had dealt with it at sea as it did throughout the world.
I do not know why the Minister continues to insist that this country has not given away its natural resources. Of course we have given our resources away to multinational companies. The State will get nothing for its resources because, by the time the companies in question have used their tax breaks, the State will get nothing. Not only has the Minister given our resources away but his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, gave away the same licences last year, thereby giving the companies a full year in which to apply.
The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has spoken about having to spend €30 million or €40 million on exploration to ascertain the levels of oil and gas which are to be found off our shores. He was a member of a Government that spent €60 million on electronic voting machines that nobody wants. Earlier today, the House debated the cost to the taxpayers of a payroll system that was supposed to be the most efficient system in the country. We would be far better off if we had spent €30 million or €40 million on finding out whether we have gas and oil. We should not have given exploration rights to multinational companies, which can tell the Government whether resources are available and can decide when to process them. The people of this country, who own such resources, will never know what is found off our shores.
The greatest scandal of all is that County Mayo, which will have to deal with the many headaches involved in this project, will not benefit from it because no spur lines will be developed to any of its towns. The project would have received more support in County Mayo if the people of the county were benefitting from the development of additional infrastructure, the provision of gas and the creation of jobs. The people of Mayo do not support it because it is doing nothing for the county or the country as a whole. The price of gas increased by over 30% last Saturday, 1 October 2005. We should not feel sorry for Shell because its investment has trebled since the day it became involved in this project. The people of County Mayo have been let down by the Government and by Mayo County Council. I hope the members of the Government have learned their lesson and will listen to the people who will be affected by this project. They should not listen to experts who are well paid to give whatever type of advice is sought by those who employ them. If they are paid by people who are for something, they will find in favour of it. If they are paid by people who are against something, they will find against it.
Mr. Broughan: Hear, hear.
Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey): I am disappointed that, with one or two notable exceptions, I have not heard anything more novel, positive or helpful this evening than I did when the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources spent over three hours discussing this matter last week. The situation in County Mayo will not be resolved by people rehashing lies and untruths in the manner we have heard again today.
Mr. Ring: A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister should withdraw that comment immediately.
Mr. N. Dempsey: This debate has suggested to me that part of the difficulty we have in this regard is that certain people do a great deal of talking but very little listening. I would like to respond to some of the serious issues which were raised.
Deputy Kenny asked whether the environmental issues will be dealt with under supervised access. I mentioned earlier that the matter has been taken in hand today. Local people who have asked for supervised access have been allowed to visit the site to observe what is taking place. The Deputy also asked about the economic benefits of the project, which I have outlined on previous occasions. The major benefit of the project is that it will give this country an indigenous gas supply. It will lead to a reduction of approximately 50% in this country’s imports of gas.
Mr. T. Broughan: How much tax will the Exchequer receive on foot of the project?
Mr. N. Dempsey: I stated clearly at last week’s meeting of the joint committee that we will be price-takers in respect of gas, regardless of whether it comes from the Corrib field, Russia, Algeria or the North Sea. If we have an indigenous gas supply, there will be fewer constraints and a greater security of supply. We will not have to pay the additional transport costs which we would have to pay in respect of gas coming from outside the country. The Deputy also asked whether untreated gas is safer than treated gas. I think the answer to that, technically speaking, is yes.
Raw gas can cause problems but it depends on specific pressure and many other conditions. Treated gas is more manageable in transmission than untreated gas. This gas is treated at the wellhead before being brought onshore and is treated again at the terminal.
The safety issues raised in a letter from Deputy Kenny to me have been passed on to Advantica and will form part of the safety review. The Deputy asked if pressure reduction devices were possible for the gas pipeline. They are possible and are used in this pipeline. The pressure at the well head is over 345 bar but gas will only pass through the pipeline at an average of 120 bar, although it can increase to 135 bar. The pipeline is built for a pressure of 150 bar.
Mr. Kenny: Does the Minister know the minimum operating pressure from the well head to the terminal?
Mr. N. Dempsey: It can and will work at a very low pressure over a period. It will generally operate at 135 bar pressure. However, after three or four years, a plateau will be reached and the pressure will begin to drop. Eventually, a suction process will be used to get gas out of the well.
The Deputy asked about the variation of the pipeline route. If this is required, it will depend on a number of factors, but it could possibly require a new permission and consent procedure.
Deputies asked about the value of the gas field. At current estimates, it is valued at some €3.7 billion, although I am not sure if that figure takes account of the latest increase in gas prices. The field contains approximately 900 billion cu. ft. of gas.
While I do not want to constrain the chairp
erson with regard to how he handles this process, the idea of the two-day hearing is for local people to raise issues and concerns and bring forward any evidence they have to support their fears. Local people do not have to convince the media, me or anybody else. Advantica which is independent will make the decision on this matter. The local people - it is up to them - should make their case and state their fears. I received a letter from Deputy Kenny and one from Micheál Ó Seighin which will form part of the process. If interested persons want to submit a written submission rather than an oral submission, they can do so up to 13 October, or they can bring it to the hearing.
I am glad Deputy Broughan has clarified Labour Party policy, namely, that it is the same as the Shell to Sea Campaign and that the only solution is offshore, which is also the Sinn Féin position. It is interesting to hear all of the hypocrisy spouted by the Labour Party on this issue. It was in government between 1992 and 1997 and had a Minister of State in the equivalent of my Department.
Mr. Broughan: We did not change the terms.
Mr. N. Dempsey: That is precisely the point I am making.
Mr. Broughan: The leader of Fianna Fáil was in the first Government, as was the Minister.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The Labour Party which had a Minister of State in the relevant Department never even opened the file. It was not the slightest bit interested in the terms and conditions, yet now it has a big ideological hang-up about them.
Mr. Broughan: In the 1970s the Minister’s predecessors vilified a Labour Party Minister who brought in decent terms because he stood up to the oil companies. That is the reality.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The Labour Party did not even have the interest——
Mr. Broughan: It was the Minister’s former colleague, Mr. Ray Burke, who changed the terms.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister to continue without interruption.
Mr. Broughan: On a point of information——
Mr. N. Dempsey: I do not need a point of information. The Labour Party Minister of State never even looked at the file.
Mr. Broughan: The Minister’s predecessor vilified a Labour Party Minister, Mr. Justin Keating. It was the Minister’s former colleague who changed the terms and went into rooms with oil magnates with no civil servants present.
Mr. N. Dempsey: As I come from County Meath, I know what your——
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister should speak through the Chair.
Mr. N. Dempsey: During the debate I heard the repetition of the argument from Deputy Sargent and probably Deputy Broughan that Mr. Ray Burke changed the terms and conditions in 1987 at a secret meeting without civil servants being present. The civil servants who dealt with these matters at the time have categorically stated to me that this is untrue. They have stated to me on a number of occasions that there is no evidence whatsoever that anything like that happened. If a Member of the House has that kind of evidence, he or she has a duty to bring it forward. I will have it properly investigated.
It is not the case, as Deputy Cowley stated, that the former Minister, Deputy Fahey, did away with any planning permissions or consents in regard to gas and oil exploration, pipelines or anything else. A specific regime is in place. It may not be perfect and we have probably learned a little in this regard. However, it is not the case that these were done away with by the former Minister.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh raised questions about the sale of land by Coillte. That is a matter proper to the Department of Agriculture and Food. I understand parliamentary questions have been tabled for tomorrow and Thursday on the matter which it will be dealt with at that time.
The legality of the various consents was raised by a number of Deputies. Much of this will be contested in court. However, some of the consents were tested in the High Court in July 2002 and withstood that test. On the question of withdrawing consents, my legal advice is that I cannot withdraw or withhold consents unreasonably. Shell obtained the consents and provided it operates within them, I cannot withdraw them.
Reference was made to the possibility of ruptures and explosions - the term “kill zone” was used. The safety review will establish whether the distances between the pipeline and houses are in accordance with relevant standards, design recommendations and best international practice. Questions were raised as to whether 70 metres was a safe distance. I do not want to comment on this issue until the safety review is complete. However, from the files I have studied, 70 metres would seem to be the received wisdom of the company and various consultants who have previously examined the project.
That will form part of the review. I have reopened that question through the current review. I await the expert advice on this and related issues in regard to the general safety of the pipeline.

Posted Date: 
21 August 2006 - 1:09am