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Corrib struggle is about what kind of Ireland we want
Wednesday March 30, 2011 13:00 by William Callaghan - Dublin Shell to Sea
[This article appears in the current issue of the Mayo Advertiser newspaper, published last Friday, 25th March 2011]
There was something strangely apt about the way former Fianna Fail TD Pat Carey signed consents for the Corrib Gas pipeline on the day of the recent general election. It perfectly encapsulated the cronyist, cowardly, short-sighted and undemocratic manner in which this Frankenstein’s monster of a project was created and kept alive by a succession of Fianna Fail ministers.
First, there was Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern, whose 1992 licensing terms literally handed ownership and control of Irish oil and gas reserves to privately-owned oil giants. Next came Frank Fahey. As minister for the marine, he signed the foreshore licence for the pipeline on 17 May 2002. Guess what else happened on that day. That’s right: a general election. The onshore pipeline was exempt from planning permission because the refinery – several kilometres inland – was classified as the “shoreline”.
This is just a sampling of the stroke-pulling that saw the Government assume the conflicting roles of developer and regulator of the project. This stubborn support for Shell’s experimental project has led inexorably to the company’s latest plan, to dig a 5 km tunnel under Sruwaddacon Estuary (a Special Area of Conservation) to carry the notorious high-pressure, raw gas pipeline. This will involve up to 250 truck movements per day along public roads so narrow in places that two cars can barely pass each other.
I am baffled at how Pat Carey felt he had a mandate to issue these consents on his last day in office, considering he had been in the relevant ministry for a matter of days and was part of a minority Government and considering An Bord Pleanala’s permission for the pipeline was and still is subject to High Court proceedings by An Taisce and several local residents. This is typical of the State’s approach to Corrib: we’re dealing with a big “investor” here, so certain things can be compromised to keep it happy: health and safety, the environment, community consent, human rights, due process, fairness, democracy.
Since my first visit to the Rossport area in May 2005, I have returned too often to count. So why are people like me drawn to this place? It’s not just its natural beauty, though that is a factor. It’s not just the inspiring spirit, determination and brave direct action of a people under siege in an isolated community, though that is something that has brought tears to my eyes and changes to my outlook on life.
Mainly it is because the Corrib Gas saga raises the question: what kind of society do we want to live in?
The affected community’s concerns about health, safety and the environment are often balanced against the “national interest”, namely jobs, tax revenue and a domestic supply of gas. But these supposed benefits are rarely scrutinised. If you do scrutinise them, they soon dissolve.
The project will provide only a handful of long-term jobs. The tax revenue will be tiny or possibly nil. That’s the view of Brian O’Cathain who was head of the project until 2002. At a recent debate I attended in Dublin, he predicted: “Corrib will never pay tax.” This bizarre situation arises because the licensing terms cooked up by Messrs Burke and Ahern allow oil companies extraordinarily generous tax write-offs before declaring profits.
This write-off bonanza applies to all Irish oil and gas reserves, which together could be 100 times bigger than Corrib. The Atlantic Margin alone, off the west coast, contains 10 billion barrels of oil/gas, according to the Government (worth €850 billion at today’s prices), with further huge prospects off the south and east coasts and onshore. The portion of this revenue that would return to the State in tax is far below the 25% suggested by the corporate tax rate. In most countries, the state ‘take’ is between 50% and 90%.
Oil companies and their allies in Government argue that “attractive” terms are needed to encourage exploration and thereby guarantee a “secure supply”. But this is where the pro-corporate nature of Ireland’s terms really shines. Companies are under no obligation to supply the oil or gas to the Irish market, nor even to land it in Ireland. Oil can be loaded into tankers at the rig and shipped abroad. Depending on a field’s location, gas could be piped to the UK. This would mean no domestic supply, no onshore jobs and no new infrastructure.
Shell is expected to start working on its tunnel in the coming days. Local people will continue to resist this disastrous project. Like hundreds of campaigners from around Ireland, I will be heading to Erris to support them. I am motivated by a belief that no community should have to accept a project that threatens their livelihoods, their lives and their environment; and a belief that Irish resources should benefit people in Ireland, not corporate shareholders.