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The terminal site with Sruwaddacon Bay
Aerial view The terminal site with Sruwaddacon Bay in the background. Pic: Jan Pesch

Next government may solve Corrib debacle

Analysis
Áine Ryan


MOMENTS of humour have been rare at the high-octane Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) hearing into the issuing of an Integrated Pollution Prevention Control licence for the Corrib gas project. So when Shell witness Dr David Phillips, an expert in marine pollution control, broke the tension, the brief relief rippled through the room like a mini-tornado. Shell to Sea’s John Monaghan was cross-examining three scientists, and intimating that despite their declared objectivity, they clearly enjoyed ‘a cosy, even incestuous, relationship’ with the giant company. “Well, we haven’t had sex yet,” retorted Dr Philips drily.
His ironic quip underpins a quagmire of ironies. This classic David and Goliath struggle has created a community whose expertise on the scientific minutiae of the project – marine biology, environmental science, botany, geology, toxicology – appears, at times, to outstrip that of the so-called real experts. (For example, last week the hearing’s Chairman, Frank Clinton deferred to local landowner, Bríd McGarry’s submission as a source he would repeatedly examine for guidance while preparing his report.) 
Another irony is that, after all of this – over a decade since the Corrib field was discovered, almost two years since five men were jailed, the removal of around 200,000 tonnes of peat, the spending of over €5 million on a Garda operation – there is no specific route for the pipeline. A fortnight ago, in the High Court, Shell vacated their Compulsory Acquisition Orders for the original route. These orders had led to the jailing of the Rossport Five in June 2005 after they refused to obey an injunction allowing the company onto their lands. Add to this bizarre tale the undisputed likelihood that the publication of a new route will lead to yet another oral hearing and the ongoing complexity of the situation becomes apparent.
Perhaps the most pivotal irony is, however, that if a Fine Gael-Labour coalition gain power,  supported by the Greens, the junior coalition partners may demand a Commission of Inquiry  into the project. When Seanad candidate, Dr Mark Garavan and Dr Jerry Cowley TD flagged this concept last November, Minister Dempsey deemed it as ‘containing nothing new’, while Shell said it was ‘unrealistic’. However, a number of Labour Party deputies welcomed it.
At the time,  Labour’s Natural Resources spokesman, Tommy Broughan TD, told The Mayo News that the issue would be central to its election campaign and, moreover, its resolution would be given primacy in its agenda. Michael D Higgins also stressed ‘the State’s primary duty to its citizens’, highlighting the Government’s ‘ambivalent, negative and injurious role’ in the history of the project. Both Sinn Féin and the Greens have made similar commitments, while Fine Gael has tacitly supported the present Government’s position.
The Corrib gas controversy is a quagmire. Its genesis can partly be blamed on Ray Burke’s 1987 abolition of all State participation in the commercial development of certain natural resources, such as oil and gas. Then in 1992, Minister for Finance, Bertie Ahern, further compounded these favourable conditions for exploration companies by reducing corporation taxes and allowing extensive licencing terms. However, the final and most damning governmental intervention and ‘biggest mistake of all’, was, as Leo Corcoran of An Taisce told the EPA hearing, the issuing by Minister Frank Fahey of ‘a dodgy consent’. This was in 2002, a very busy year for Corrib’s vested interests.
An Bord Pleanála (APB) held an unprecedented two hearings in 2002 and ultimately, after a new modified planning application was submitted by Shell in 2003,  proceeded to overturn its own inspector’s report, which had stated it was an unsuitable project for such a remote area. Inspector Kevin Moore also cited the threat to ‘a sensitive and scenic environment’, the instability potential of removing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat and the risk of a major accidents. During this process, ABP had asked Shell to consider the offshore, shallow-water option of processing the gas, having expressed serious concerns around health and safety issues.
However, Frank Fahey had already published his Marine Licence Vetting Committee Report which recommended ‘full consents’ for the project and did not address an offshore processing  option. He also granted a Foreshore Licence shortly before he left office in May 2003. Around this time senior executives from Shell met Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and other senior ministers regarding concerns over planning delays. Within a week they had met the chairman of APB. By the following year they had been granted planning permission, with the proviso that the excavated peat be removed to a cut-away bog 11km away. In the interim, the Pollathomas landslide had devastating effects.
As the EPA hearing draws to a close this week, there are few certainties. One, however, is that despite the huge Garda presence, the Shell public relations campaign and public fatigue, this campaign to process gas offshore will not go away. A community of ordinary people has been transformed by extraordinary circumstances.
Many of them are cynical about the significance of the EPA hearing. They say the agency has never overturned an inspector’s report, they say the outcome is a fait accompli, another flawed process designed to placate and create an impression of democracy.  
However, Chairman Frank Clinton has proved rigorous, impartial and patient in his daily deliberations. While he returns to EPA headquarters in Wexford to write his report, ongoing High Court proceedings may well introduce a new twist in this epic tale. Shell needs a route and an IPPC licence to progress this project as currently configured. At the moment it, effectively, has neither.



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