Ruairi McCann asks whether it was Norwegian pressure which eventually secured the release of the Rossport 5 campaigners
THE ELECTION of a left-wing government in Norway appears to have hastened the release of environmental campaigners, the Rossport The five County Mayo men were jailed have for refusing to obey a court injunction ordering them not to obstruct work on the Corrib gas pipeline.
The disputed pipeline is planned to transport unrefined gas from the offshore Corrib gas field, located 80 km off Erris Head in County Mayo, to a refinery six miles inland. The gas field is owned by a consortium which includes Shell E&P and Statoil Exploration.
The Norwegian state is a majority shareholder in Statoil. The five men's incarceration and the campaign to boycott Statoil petrol stations in Ireland made headlines in the Norwegian press.
Norway's conservative government was replaced by a Labour-Socialist coalition after recent elections. The energy consortium which owns the Corrib gas field went to the High Court to seek orders against the five men for refusing to allow access to their land for work on the pipeline. The Department of the Marine had made compulsory purchase orders to enable the pipeline to be laid on their lands. The judge granted the orders against Micheal O Seighin, Willie Corduff, Brendan Philbin, Vincent McGrath and Philip McGrath who will remain in jail until they 'purge their contempt'.
The Corrib gas field and the planned pipeline have proved controversial for a number of reasons. The primary concern of Shell to Sea, a group of concerned citizens campaigning against the onshore pipeline, is for the health and safety of local people.
The pipeline, they argue, is unprecedented anywhere in the world. Normally high-pressure pipelines of untreated gas do not go over land; rather the gas is treated at sea and given an odour to make the detection of leaks easier. This pipeline will transport untreated, odourless gas through a populated area. While international safety standards for such a high-pressure pipe (345 bar) recommend a 1700 metre buffer zone, some homes are located less than 100 metres from the intended path of the Mayo pipeline.
The pipeline design has never been evaluated by any competent authority, having been deemed by Mayo County Council at the developer's request to be exempt from planning.
Environmentalists are also alarmed about the potential damage to the landscape of north Mayo. The terminal where Shell and Statoil hope to refine the gas is next to sensitive areas of natural heritage that they say deserve protection, such as Carrowmore Lake (listed as a Special Area of Conservation under EU regulations) and Broadhaven Bay, a proposed National Heritage Area.
Both the refinery and the pipeline are to be constructed on bog land that is considered to be unstable, as the massive bog slide at nearby Pollatomish two years ago would suggest. The planning application for the refinery was rejected twice before An Bord Pleanala overruled its own inspector and gave its approval.
Shell insists that risk assessments have been carried out but it has emerged in Irish newspapers that the independent companies charged by the marine minister with completing the audits are part owned by Shell.
Another major aspect of the dispute arises out of the Irish government's egregious relationship with multinational energy companies. The selling off of the Corrib gas field to Shell and Statoil had all the hallmarks of a 'sweetheart deal', campaigners insist.
As a natural resource, the gas field should belong to the Irish people. In fact, as a result of a bizarre deal done by disgraced TD Ray Burke in 1987, the Irish state has no stake in the gas field, and the consortium will not be obliged to pay even one cent in royalties.
As one former director of Statoil Exploration, Mike Cunningham, explained, "no other country in the world has given such favourable terms as Ireland." In other parts of Europe, the state stake can be as much as 80 per cent of the resource.
The Shell to Sea campaigners are now focussing their efforts on Statoil because it is state owned and has a record of sensitive development of natural resources both in Norway and beyond. The Rossport Five made a direct appeal to Statoil and the Norwegian people in a pamphlet distributed in Norway.
"Do Statoil and the Norwegian people really want to associate themselves with this kind of intimidation against local people defending their rights and their environment?" they asked. "Imprisoning men for defending their own land is a brutal breach of our human rights."
Shell caused further controversy last month when it criticised the proposed trip to Norway by Mayo independent TD, Dr Jerry Cowley. The trip was described on local radio by a senior member of Shell management as a 'junket'. Shell later apologised for the remark. Dr Cowley said he had arranged the trip to inform the Norwegian government, unions and people of the situation in Ireland with regard to the Corrib gas project.
Meanwhile, energy minister Noel Dempsey, says he intends to introduce legislation to avoid the kinds of planning 'problems' that have dogged the Shell project at Rossport.
"I have no hang-ups about saying it [Corrib] is a natural resource; it is our natural resource and it should benefit the Irish people to the maximum extent possible. But it's a bit of a pointless exercise saying that we should have royalties and the state should take 80 per cent of non-existent profits. You can have all the wonderful left-wing socialist terms you want, but you would be sitting here waiting for donkey's years for anyone," the minister insisted.
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Copyright © 2005 Ruairi McCann