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INTERVIEW Michael Crothers, outgoing MD, Shell E&P Ireland

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Michael Crothers, outgoing Managing Director of Shell.
SAYING GOODBYE?Michael Crothers, outgoing Managing Director of Shell.?Pic: Keith Heneghan

Where Corrib Gas is concerned ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’


As the Corrib gas is due to flow within months, Áine Ryan exclusively interviews its outgoing MD, Michael Crothers, about his experience taking over one of the most controversial infrastructural projects in the history of the State.

AR Was there a difference between your prior knowledge from company briefings and press coverage about the Corrib controversy and what you discovered for yourself on-the-ground in Erris on your arrival?
MC The press coverage that I reviewed before I came to Ireland, both print and video, led me to feel apprehensive and to expect a hostile welcome. What I discovered when I had the opportunity to first meet people in late 2011 in County Mayo was much different. I found a genuine willingness to engage even if people had different views. What made the most impact on me, and which I will always remember, is the kindness that was usually extended to me despite the fact that I was an outsider.  I’m deeply appreciative of the generosity and openness of the people I met.
 
AR If you had been the MD of the Corrib project at the outset what would you have done differently in addressing the community concerns?
MC Hindsight is a wonderful thing! I think the people here many years ago, starting with Enterprise did what they thought was right at the time.  What I’ve been open about is that we could have done a better job of engagement when Shell became involved in the project.  The company was very focused on schedules and construction progress on a project it believed was well advanced. We were not fully aware of the real situation in the locality. If we had taken more time at the outset to speak with residents, and built a team of local people to help us understand the genuine concerns of the community, that would have helped us make better decisions. 
For many years now we have made a sincere effort to listen and to deliver on our commitments on local content such as jobs and skills development, community investment driven by residents, and sustainable benefits that will last for the life of the project.  I have heard a lot of positive feedback from the community about our actions and that we are earning back the trust we lost.
Relationships need constant effort – while I’m pleased that we are increasingly seen as a valuable part of Erris, we are committed to being a good neighbour in the future.   
 
AR What has Shell learned from the Rossport 5 experience?
MC Everyone involved has learned lessons from the Corrib experience.  Certainly in Shell we’ve been open about discussing those lessons about early and productive two-way engagement and applying them in other projects.    That being said, it is highly unlikely that a full consensus on any infrastructure development will ever be achieved, whether that’s a gas plant, a wind farm, or electricity pylons.  Key elements for consideration include whether the consent processes are fair and transparent, are there constructive ways to resolve disputes for those who are impacted, and in what way can the greater public good be balanced with individual’s concerns.
 
AR The protestors often successfully held government and its agencies to account (during public hearings and legal actions), ultimately improving the regulatory system. Has the protest done the State some service, as a result?
MC I would make a distinction between opponents of the project who engaged with the statutory processes and ‘protestors’ whose actions sometimes flouted the law.  Regarding the former, I think the outcome has been mixed.  Shell and the community share much in common on how the regulatory process could be improved and many constructive changes have been made by regulators.  On the other hand, some investors have said that the Corrib experience has discouraged them from coming to Ireland.
There remains a significant opportunity to simplify the planning and consent processes to remove duplication and uncertainties without eroding the high standards.  Unlike other countries, the systems in Ireland are quite adversarial and could be transformed to bring the community, companies and regulators together to resolve issues in an open and respectful manner.  As part of that approach, mediation has been a success elsewhere rather than resorting to the courts.

AR The dogs in the street in Erris know that the pipe-laying ship, the Solitaire left Broadhaven Bay because Maura Harrington was on hunger strike. Will you confirm this now and comment?
MC It would seem that we disagree with the dogs on this one…  Although I was not here in 2008, I’ve seen the photos and spoken to those involved. There was serious mechanical damage to the part of the Solitaire vessel that controlled the pipe laying on the sea bed.   The ship had to leave to make repairs and because of further poor weather in the subsequent weeks, the vessel couldn’t return and a full season’s work was lost.   
 
AR As a longtime Shell employee, what have you learned about small and peripheral communities since you came to this project?
MC I don’t see the community in Erris as peripheral at all.  Where ever projects are done there are communities to take into account and they are key stakeholders. Communities must be treated with respect, as should company representatives, and that means engagement needs to start at the initial project design phase and not when construction starts.  It also means that there is onus on developers to demonstrate they are adequately balancing environmental protection, social benefits and economics.
I’d like to add that I am grateful for the tolerance of the community through a protracted construction period that is now ending.  By the autumn the construction sites at Glengad and Aughoose will be reinstated with peat and remaining construction related traffic will decrease markedly.  There is a great story here about how our Irish staff and Irish contractors have delivered to the highest environmental standards with real dedication and ingenuity.


AR Do you think the protest – which from my experience as a journalist was very complex and multi-layered – was treated fairly by the media?
MC I’ve observed more balance in recent reporting and a willingness by journalists to actually spend time in Erris to engage with a broad cross-section of the community.
Looking ahead, I hope that the opportunities and benefits that the Corrib project is bringing to Erris, Co Mayo and to Ireland as a whole will be covered fairly by the media.

From Calgary to Corrib
Michael Crothers, Managing Director of Shell E&P Ireland Limited since late 2011 has returned to his home city of Calgary, in Canada, where he has been appointed to a new leadership role with Shell’s North American gas business.
A Chemical Engineer by background, Michael has over 27 years of experience in Shell’s Upstream and Downstream businesses. 
Some of Michael’s previous roles prior to Corrib include General Manager Scotford Upgrader, VP Downstream Health Safety Environment & Sustainable Development, and General Manager Global Supply and Logistics for Shell Chemicals, overseeing operations in 40 countries.
Michael’s successor at Shell E&P Ireland Limited is Ronan Deasy. A UCC graduate, Ronan took his Masters in Petroleum Geology at Aberdeen? University in the UK. Since joining Shell in 1990, he has held a variety of roles in the Netherlands, Gabon, Australia, China and Dubai.
Most recently he’s led Shell’s upstream commercial activities in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. He moved to Dublin in January.