LIKE THE SUN A still image taken from a recording shows the glow of the flaring at the Corrib Gas Terminal on January 31.
THE book I am reading at the moment opens with the murder of a journalist after he visits a gas terminal on the Shetland Islands. All I know so far is that he was on to some big story, drove a fancy car, was hit over the head by somebody and his body was found in a yoal (yawl) owned by the island’s chief Procuator Fiscal (the word for a public prosecutor in Scotland).
I have read nearly all author Anne Cleeve’s Shetland series and this story, entitled ‘Dead Water’ resonates for me not only because I holidayed in Shetland a couple of months ago and passed Sullom Voe – the site of the giant oil terminal – on several occasions.
Occasionally, while covering the Corrib gas story over the last 15 years, I sometimes imagined I would be found murdered on some bog or cliff edge in Erris. Tensions were often very high and the job of the journalist was skating on the thin-ice of objective and dispassionate reportage about a David and Goliath story which was peppered with Shakespearean moments and disparate viewpoints.
That is why reactions to the New Year’s Eve sighting of huge flares of gas over the skyline of this magnificent land and seascape, on the edge of the Atlantic, was so symbolic of the deep divisions caused by this project.
If you were a cartoonist, you could have a field-day. The caption could be: “No need for fireworks display to welcome 2016 in Erris.”
YouTube clip of flaring
A YouTube film clip, subsequently removed, documents John Egan of Shell E&P Ireland, showing the flaring some minutes before it reached its peak. The video clip showed Mr Egan against the backdrop of the flaring stack. Describing the arrival of first gas as ‘an extraordinary sight’, he confirmed it was 8pm on New Year’s Eve at Bellanaboy and observed it was a ‘fantastic way to spend New Year’s Eve’.
Unsurprisingly, that isn’t how some locals felt about their night sky being illuminated by a giant flare. One resident, who lives in Glengad, told The Irish Times it was ‘frightening’ and another said it had the sound of a ‘low loud rumble like a supersonic boom’. While Shell did advise residents, a few days earlier, that that flaring would take place ‘intermittently’ and subsequently acknowledged that the New Year’s Eve flaring was ‘exceptional’, it is entirely understandable that locals would have been frightened.
Imagine if the refinery site was on the edge of Louisburgh or Newport? Or if it was in the Westport suburbs of Carrowholly or out near Belclare?
Fears, whether grounded or not, regarding this project have been compounded all along by the manner in which the world of officialdom, from the Council, the Government and agencies, such as An Garda Síochána, circled the wagons and dealt with local people who educated themselves on big oil and gas and expressed concerns.
Protestors did ‘the State some service’
In an Irish Times column, published last week, social activist and member of the Council Of State, Ruairí McKiernan, argued how the Corrib protestors had done the State some service. He explained how their actions ‘secured important safety improvements to the project and helped create a much needed national debate about the management of our natural resources’.
McKiernan observes that the controversy around the project had been ‘one of modern Ireland’s greatest scandals, a stunning fiasco in planning, economics, environmental protection and the abuse of civil liberties’.
“It has been a battle of David versus Goliath, a rural Gaeltacht community versus Shell, the fourth-largest company in the world, its partners Statoil and Vermillion, and their powerful allies in politics and the media,” he writes.
Noting that locals were ‘ridiculed, slandered, spied on, harassed, beaten and jailed’, he reminds readers of what Kevin Moore, a senior planning inspector with An Bord Pleanála, said when rejecting the planning permission for the refinery back in 2003.
“From a strategic planning perspective, this is the wrong site; from the perspective of government policy which seeks to foster balanced regional development, this is the wrong site; from the perspective of minimising environmental impact, this is the wrong site; and consequently, from the perspective of sustainable development, this is the wrong site.”
Fortunately, the rigorous observations of local protestors at oral hearings, and their protests, have ultimately ensured this is a relatively safer project. Other than the tragic accidental death of Lars Wagner while working in the subsea tunnel, it is fortunate that nobody else died during this protracted and embittered controversy.