Thursday, 6 October 2005
Corrib Gas Field: Statements.
Senators will be aware that both sides in the dispute responded positively to the indication by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on Thursday last that the Government would appoint a mediator, provided both sides were willing to respond positively. The injunction has been lifted, and as Senators know, the five Rossport men have been released.
The Minister is now moving to progress matters further. Regarding the mediator, the Minister is in consultation with both sides in an effort to identify a person or body who might be willing to undertake that work. He intends that by this weekend a list of possible mediators will have been provided to both sides to establish their acceptability and see if a name can be agreed. As soon as that process has been completed, the mediator will start work. In the meantime, the two sides are adopting a very positive approach to resolving issues between them.
The Corrib gas field has been a high priority issue for the Minister and he is greatly encouraged by recent developments, which offer an opportunity for both sides to move forward. As a public representative in the west of Ireland, I have been keenly interested in the matter, and I share the Minister's sense of encouragement. I am also keenly aware that the Corrib pipeline is a major infrastructural project with the potential to play a significant role in the economic and social regeneration of Mayo and the north-west region. It will make a real contribution to sustainable development in the area in that it will act as a catalyst for the extension of the Bord Gáis distribution system to towns in the region; facilitate the improvement of the region's infrastructure, particularly its electricity supply and distribution network, thereby removing a major barrier to inward investment; and increase local employment, in both the short and long term.
The development will also increase Ireland's security of supply by providing a reliable and secure indigenous source of gas. With the current rise in oil prices, the strategic value of indigenous gas increases. However, notwithstanding the potential benefits, it is of crucial importance that the project proceed with the agreement of all the interested parties.
It was a source of great regret to me that five Rossport men were committed to prison as a result of their opposition to the proposed pipeline. Over the past three months, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has been endeavouring at every opportunity to create the conditions that would allow this matter to be resolved. During that time, and following contact with the five men through an intermediary, he ordered a full safety review of the Corrib on-shore, up-stream pipeline. The Minister also increased the monitoring and supervision of the project. On 25 August last, he appointed Advantica Consultants to conduct a safety review and, more recently, he announced a public consultation process, including a two-day public hearing in the locality, to take place on 12 and 13 October.
Senators may be aware that the Corrib issue was discussed in the Dáil on several occasions last week. The Taoiseach commented on the matter during Leaders' Questions, and I also addressed the House on the issue. The Minister also dealt with the matter in some detail at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The strong message from the various Oireachtas debates was that the issue needed to be moved forward. Late last week, the Minister contacted both sides in an effort to break the impasse and indicated to them that the Government would appoint a mediator if both sides were willing to participate in a mediation process. The Minister then called on both parties to create the conditions which would allow such a process to commence immediately. I am glad to say that both sides responded positively to the Minister's initiative. I share the Minister's hope that the progress made to date, along with the appointment of a mediator, will allow all those concerned to participate fully in the public consultation process of the safety review and to work together to resolve the difficulties that have arisen.
The safety review of the on-shore, up-stream gas pipeline is now under way. It will be thorough and comprehensive and will be carried out by independent, internationally recognised experts. Advantica, the successful bidder, is a world leader in the development and application of advanced hazard and risk-assessment technologies for gas pipelines. The review will examine critically all relevant documentation relating to the design, construction and operation of the pipeline and associated facilities.
Advantica has been asked to identify deficiencies, if any, regarding safety and make recommendations as to how those might be remedied. It is important that people with views relating to the safety of the pipeline should have the opportunity to have them considered by Advantica. That aspect is being addressed, and views are now being invited from local residents, communities and any interested party. Advantica has visited the Corrib site as part of its work, and, as I have stated, a two-day public hearing will be held in Mayo later this month. The hearing will be chaired by John Gallagher SC. The hearing is an opportunity for everyone locally with concerns to clearly express them and ensure that all safety issues are brought to the attention of Advantica for full consideration.
I assure Senators that despite some media comments to the contrary, the safety review will most certainly deal with the issue of the pipeline's proximity to dwellings. Clearly, no safety review could take place without full consideration of that issue. That key question has been at the centre of genuine local concerns about the project. Advantica knows that the issue has to be dealt with fully and explicitly in its work, and it will be.
Local residents are also concerned about the ongoing safety of the pipeline if it were in place. It has been stated, incorrectly, that there is no State agency with specific responsibility for on-shore, up-stream pipeline safety. I assure the House that this is not the case. The Minister has specific powers regarding the safety of the gas pipelines and he will use all legislative mechanisms available to him to ensure that safety in installations and the operation of such pipelines are addressed and policed properly. The Minister also intends, as he outlined in the Dáil last July, that a clear regime for the operation and maintenance of the pipeline be put in place. The safety regime will be spelt out clearly and will be in place before the first gas flows through the pipeline from the Corrib field. The Minister will ensure that the highest standards of safety apply and that procedures are open and transparent. If Advantica makes any recommendations on those issues in its final report they will be fully taken into account in the preparation of final consents.
I now turn to the legal basis for the gas field. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is responsible for regulatory aspects of petroleum exploration and development. Authorisations were granted for the Corrib gas field under several provisions. Under the Continental Shelf Act 1968, authorisation was given for the construction of sub-sea facilities within the continental shelf designated areas. Consent was also granted for the plan for the development of the field under the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act 1960. Under the Gas Act 1976, as amended, consents were given for the construction of a gas pipeline from the gas field from off shore to the terminal building. A foreshore licence was also granted under the Foreshore Acts. In accordance with EU directives, an environmental impact assessment was carried out and an environmental impact statement submitted with each application for consent or approval.
It has been suggested that the terminal might be sited off shore. The reality, however, is that the proposal made by the developers to the Department was for an onshore terminal only. This option was considered by the developers to be the most appropriate. I understand it is now becoming common practice to place terminals onshore rather than at sea. After consideration of a number of sites of entry for the pipeline, the developers proposed to bring it ashore at Dooncarton in Broadhaven Bay. Their proposal, which has since been approved, was to run the pipeline for 9 km to the terminal site.
It is clear that while the matter is by no means resolved, significant progress has been made which can be built on through the mediation process as well as the safety review and public hearing. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will continue to listen to the health and safety concerns of residents in the vicinity of the Corrib onshore pipeline and will continue his commitment to having these issues dealt with through the appropriate mechanisms.
I welcome the Minister of State's statement which outlines the latest developments in regard to the Corrib onshore pipeline. Although it is quite a distance from Rossport, a public meeting on the issue was recently held in Newcastle West in County Limerick. The families of the Rossport men were represented and Dr. Mark Garavan, spokesman for the Shell to Sea campaign, spoke at length. It was an informative session and indicated how this issue has resonated with the public in that it seems a manifestation of the small man taking on a major multinational. Speakers at the meeting drew our attention to the unfavourable publicity for Shell some years ago in regard to its activities in the Ogoni region of Nigeria. It is ironic that the same company is involved in this controversy in which five people were imprisoned as a result of their stance on the proposed onshore pipeline. The action they took was a consequence of their genuine concerns.
Recent events have exposed many deficiencies within the system in handling projects such as this. Previous experience, such as that in regard to the Kinsale gas find, should have meant the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources had the benefit of considerable knowledge and resources in handling this matter. However, it is only now that real consultation is taking place, with the announcement of a two-day public hearing on 12 and 13 October in Mayo. The safety review outlined by the Minister of State means we are at least responding to the issues of concern to residents and the wider public. In Norway, where there is much experience of the exploitation of gas and oil deposits, consultation with local people always takes place in advance. Why did such consultation not take place prior to the decision on the Corrib onshore pipeline? If the concerns of local people had been heeded, we would not have had the situation where five people were imprisoned for more than 90 days in defence of their rights.
More is required than the verbal reassurances from Shell and Statoil that the onshore pipeline is safe. I hope the safety consultants appointed by the Minister will be able to give adequate reassurances in this regard. One assumes they will take into account well known incidents where pipelines have exploded, such as at Flixborough in England and outside Brussels. We should bear in mind that the pipeline at Corrib will take a maximum pressure of 345 bar. There has been much media attention on the Shell to Sea campaign. It is surprising that the pipeline will run inland for 9 km from the refinery terminal. Why can it not be constructed closer to the shoreline?
There are concerns in regard to the sale of 400 acres to Shell by Coillte in 1999. This sale did not take place in the context of a competitive tendering process and it is this land which allowed Shell to follow through its plans to operate the terminal inland. It is the 9 km from the shore through which the pipeline will pass that is causing the most concern. Questions about the sale of this land were raised at last week's informative meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources at which the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, learned at first hand the strength of the Opposition's views and concerns on this issue. What payment did Coillte receive for these 400 acres? Why was there no tendering procedure? These are questions that must be answered. The sale of this land in 1999 created the framework for the establishment of the Corrib onshore pipeline.
It is inevitable that the publicity and media interest surrounding this issue should focus public attention on the terms and conditions of the State's agreement with Shell and the regulatory regime that is in place. Many commentators have observed that by winning no royalties or other concessions in regard to the exploitation of this valuable natural resource, the State has not got a good return for this project. The Minister reassures us by saying there has been no rush of developers anxious to become involved in exploiting our natural resources. We are also reminded of the obstacles preventing a direct State involvement in such activities, including the fact that wells may cost €20 million or €30 million and so on. However, the public is concerned by the apparent lack of benefit for the State in the exploitation of the Corrib gas field.
I appreciate the concerns of people in the region in regard to this project. The proposed creation of 35 jobs seems a small return for a project that is causing so much concern, particularly in regard to the safety of residents. I wonder what would be the reaction if, for example, the gas was brought to shore and put into the national grid to create electricity. In such a scenario, there would be a perception that Mayo and other areas in the west were benefitting from such activity and that a worthwhile project had been undertaken.
Everybody must welcome the release of the Rossport five. This allows some breathing space for discussions to take place in regard to ensuring the concerns they have expressed are teased out and allayed. It is to be hoped that the outcome of both the two day hearing and the safety report will succeed in this regard. These men are regarded as heroes within their community and beyond because of the stance they have taken on the issue. Much quiet diplomacy is taking place but there are concerns about certain approaches adopted by the former Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, on the matter.
All the parts of the jigsaw puzzle did not appear to have been pieced together at the time. There seemed to be a piecemeal approach to the project which has caused inherent problems more recently. It has created tension and political polarisation because people found it difficult to accept that the courts had certain powers, including the power to imprison people and require them to purge their contempt.
The recent visit of representatives from Mayo to Norway may have been a turning point, particularly given the involvement of Statoil and the fact that a new government is now in power. There seemed to be concern in the Norwegian community about the unfavourable public relations emanating from the project. It focused the Norwegian people's minds on the situation that existed in their own country where there is substantial local consultation on similar projects and local people are key players in advance of a project starting. They were surprised that this did not exist in Ireland. Statoil had a major influence in recent decisions which resulted in the five men being released from prison.
I hope concerns surrounding the project can be allayed and resolved. The last thing we want to happen is that people who continue to believe they have been wronged, notwithstanding the public hearing and safety report, will be imprisoned. I welcome the positive developments that have taken place and wish all the people involved guidance and success in ensuring a successful resolution can take place.
I welcome the fact that within the petroleum affairs division of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which hitherto has been something of a Cinderella division in terms of manpower, resources have been beefed up to provide a more robust approach in the granting of planning permission and to ensure that the correct follow-up action is taken in recognition of the type of situation that arises with oil and gas exploration.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to speak on this issue. When we look back on the imprisonment on those who have become known as the Rossport five we will view the matter with regret. It should not be necessary for five citizens of the State to go to prison for 94 days to vindicate what they perceive to be their rights. Regardless of the sequence of events and the legal niceties responsible for their three month stay in an Irish prison, it should not have happened here in this enlightened third millennium.
The five Mayo men whose names have become familiar during one of the finest summers in recent memory were most unlikely prisoners. Had they not been cast into a controversy to which they became central, a controversy not of their own making, they would have spent a quiet summer with their families rather that making headlines in the national and local media. I am pleased the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was finally able to facilitate the process which led to the five men regaining their freedom. I urge all sides to engage actively and realistically in the mediation process which he has arranged. It is unfortunate it took so long to bring it about but balancing the legal and political process is often not an easy task. The seeds of a permanent solution have been sown by the Minister and will bear fruit in the long term. In the meantime we must acknowledge the courageous and principled stand the five men took, the hardship it brought to them and their families and the effect it will have on all of them for some time to come.
This is a classic case of the objectives of two sections of the community coming into direct conflict with each other. It was regrettable that five citizens of this State found themselves in prison for the manner in which they attempted to defend their rights and to ensure the safety of the community which they believed to be at risk from Shell's proposals to bring gas ashore in County Mayo.
A large question mark hangs over the proposals by the oil company for this gas pipeline. I am not a technical expert or an expert on the piping of gas or petrochemicals around the country. I do not even know if this proposal affects the gas network which operates under the streets of our cities and the wider countryside as it brings energy to our towns and cities. Oil companies are in the business of making money and are powerful entities that can exercise huge influence on a worldwide scale. It came as no surprise that the company at the centre of this controversy petitioned the courts for the men's imprisonment and allowed them to sit in their cells for 94 days before acceding to the Minister's proposal. In the meantime it proceeded with work for which it had not obtained permission. I applaud the Minister for making that point to the company and requiring it to dismantle that section of the pipeline.
Since the arrival of the Celtic tiger a culture has developed in this country which is not unfriendly to powerful multinationals whereby wearing a high visibility vest confers a special permission to stop traffic, encroach on private property and generally ignore the rights and comforts of anyone who will stand in the way of generating personal wealth. In the wider context the welfare of the individual, the good of a rural or even the international community is of little consequence to companies of the size, wealth and influence of those in the oil industry. Several times over the past three decades the suggestion has been made that we should be grateful they came to our shores to spend large fortunes looking for oil and gas. Some would have us believe they do it for the Irish people but we should be more realistic and realise that balance sheets, work deadlines and full pipelines are all that matter to such concerns. We should judge the present proposals in Mayo and the problems they have caused against this background. We must judge the reasons the company finally succumbed to pressure, and availed of the opportunity presented by the Minister to bring the crisis to an end, in the context of those principles.
We can talk about principles and principled stands all day and discuss the relative claims for the safety of the installation and the power of multinational companies but who would favour a gas pipeline pumping unknown quantities of explosive material at unknown explosive pressure not much more than 100 yards from people's homes? This was not just a blind protest on the part of disgruntled residents. Their arguments were logical. I cannot confirm that they were correct but they did raise reasonable doubts about safety and the appropriateness of the industry being there at all, such as the inadequacy of the soil through which the pipeline will run and several other arguments worth investigating.
Technical people, particularly those with a vested interest, do not always have the answers. These families and the wider community in Mayo were presented with a situation not one of us would like to be in. Hard information on the project was difficult to come by and guarantees that were given were looked at askance in light of the record of the petrochemical industry. The company also defied the directions of the Minister, an action not likely to garner support for its proposals.
The record of oil companies across the world is dismal and, leaving aside wider claims from the extreme left, enough independent news bulletins have been seen over the years to enable people be aware of some of the less acceptable practices employed by them. These include the absence of proper safety systems, the exploitation of local labour and the lack of concern for the environment and communities in which they operate. In Ireland in 2005 we should be able to resist the practices imposed in Third World countries.
As a regular user of a motor car, natural gas central heating and oil-generated electricity, I am realistic in accepting that we must explore, exploit and distribute fuels in order to survive in the modern world. Such fuels are required to generate the wealth which improves the lot of the country's population. Nevertheless, we should wonder why this gas, which everyone recognises as a dangerous substance, is required to be piped so far inland to be processed. It is legitimately suggested that for a relatively tiny fraction of the budget of a development of this magnitude, the gas could be processed offshore and brought inland in a safer form. This need not affect the employment potential of the project.
I am not familiar with the entire process, but with the amount of information the company appears to be making available, not many people understand it either. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that these five men took their stand, claiming that from their research the proposal was unsafe and offered little to the people of Mayo as it stood. I accept that the mediation process as proposed by the Minister will and should be independent, but I urge that every facility be made available and every encouragement be given to expediting the process. Too much time has already elapsed, and the five families, along with the people of Mayo generally, have the right to have their fears and anxieties allayed at the earliest opportunity.
If there is any benefit to be gleaned from this issue, and there must be a positive thought everywhere, it is that it should be used as a lesson for the future. All dangerous and contentious proposals must be properly and minutely vetted, so that people are neither exposed to risk nor have a perception that they are. We must have full disclosure on what is proposed, regardless of whether a powerful multinational is involved. We must be strong and independent to ensure that our national wishes and aspirations are met in full. I wish the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, well in his mediation efforts and I hope that the matter comes to a speedy resolution, with some compromise being reached to satisfy as many people as possible.
With regard to a matter raised by Senator Finucane, Coillte appears to believe that it is a private company and is entitled to withhold information on the basis of the legal position of a private company. Coillte is a publicly owned body, but there is well-documented evidence of it not answering queries because it states that it is a private company. The Minister of State may not be able to deal with this issue now but it deserves to be addressed. I ask the Minister to contact the body and remind the appropriate people who owns Coillte and to whom it is accountable, that is, the Irish people. I am increasingly sceptical of so-called good commercial reasons, as a number of the debacles that have occurred in this country in recent years with regard to cost overruns may not have happened if there was no initial insistence on non-disclosure of commercially sensitive information. We normally discover afterwards that commercial estimates may have been exaggerated. There should be more disclosure on Coillte's part.
Nobody looking from the outside could do anything but assume that the Government presumed that these five men would not stay in jail for 90 days. It is not a coincidence that within a week of the Dáil's resumption the men were out of prison. There is a degree of cynicism in the Government's attitude, which makes it difficult to now engender trust. Eloquent explanations will probably be received from the Government detailing how it was coincidental that a formula was found to free the people imprisoned for 94 days a week after the Dáil's resumption and just before a Dáil debate on the matter.
There is a huge issue in this matter regarding public policy and policies on exploration. I am astonished at the manner in which people forget. There was little exploration ongoing off the coast of Ireland in recent years and a need existed to encourage it. However, there was a stage up until about seven years ago where oil prices dropped as low as $10 a barrel. The bottom had dropped from the oil market and I read repeatedly in The Economist that OPEC was effectively a tool of the past and had no power in the market. Oil then hit $20, $30, $40, $50 and it is now hovering around $65 a barrel. No commentator can see any time in the immediate future when the price of oil will drop much below $60 a barrel for reasons such as reduced supply and rapidly escalating demand, especially in China and India. It has been stated before and although I may be wrong, I believe the days of cheap oil are over. The economic incentive to explore is now transformed. We would be foolish to use the instruments that may have been acceptable when oil was $10 a barrel to encourage exploration for our offshore resources when oil is reaching $65 a barrel.
Unfortunately, Ireland does not have the offshore resources that Norway has. However, it is worth comparing the strategies on offshore oil and energy resources of Norway and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom had a good period while oil resources in the North Sea were plentiful, but it has not much to show for this, particularly in Scotland. On the other hand, Norway has developed a sophisticated response and has a €200 billion oil fund accumulated by the Norwegian Government to be used to fund economic growth into the indefinite future. The country did not embark on a spending or tax-cutting spree. Statoil was set up initially to deal with the country's own resources, and that company is now a major international player in the energy world, independent of whether the Norwegian North Sea resources are expended. It is worth comparing Scotland's benefits from the oil and gas off its coast and the benefits reaped by Norway from its resources.
I wish to spend a good deal of my remaining time on the precise issues that have caused such hurt and concern. On the first day I take first-year chemical engineering students in CIT, I ask them to work out for themselves what determines a piece of process equipment as being properly designed. I wish them to work out four factors from this. First, the equipment should technically work; second, it should be economically attractive; third, it should be safe; and fourth, it should be environmentally consistent with best environmental practice. Every chemical engineering faculty in the world is taught the factors that make up a good design. It is worth examining this project from such a perspective.
I am a non-Luddite who believes in progress, the value of industrialisation and the value of technology. I have always supported the development of the pharmaceutical and chemical industry in Cork and I believe it to be the wrong target for the green movement. A vast number of other industries in this country, including agriculture, have done far more environmental damage than the entire chemical, pharmaceutical and related industries. However, that is a separate issue. I wish to explain why valid technical reasons exist to be very wary of what is occurring, and I put them as valid questions rather than absolute obstacles.
I read the two quantified risk assessments available on the Department's website. I cannot recall whether there were two or three but I read two. The second one arrived at a number for the risk involved that was 40 times greater than the first one. Both risks were acceptably low by international standards in terms of what was practised internationally but the margin of difference was a factor of 40. That should set alarm bells ringing in that it suggests there is a huge number of judgmental issues involved where different experts can differ. If one is dealing with a project that will be confined within the boundaries of an industry and if two different experts within an industry say the risk is one in a million or one in 4 million, irrespective of what uncertainty there may be, those who make the judgment about the risk are those taking the risk.
What is happening in Mayo is that those who are making a judgment about whether the risk is acceptable are not those who will be at the receiving end if the judgment turns out to be wrong. That is where the uncertainty lies. Let me elaborate. If one is trying to sort out the scale of a risk one looks at two possibilities — how big the incident that might happen could be and what damage it could do. For example, if one installed a gas pipeline along O'Connell Street and there was a major explosion and a possible burn for 500 m or 600 m, thousands of people would die. Two issues arise. How likely is that to happen? We shall leave that issue for a minute because it is open to debate. Similarly, if an LP gas tanker going through O'Connell Street were to shatter under the worst possible circumstances hundreds of people would be killed because the scale would be enormous. As a result of good practice, this is extremely unlikely to happen. The two issues go together — how likely is something to happen and, if so, what will be its magnitude? Those two factors combine to give a number which is called the quantified risk. That is my simplified understanding of it and it is a reasonably correct one. This is the reason the pipeline is such a major concern in Mayo.
Suppose the same pipeline — assuming all the other numbers are correct — were to go down O'Connell Street or through a major built up area where 5,000 people live within a 500 m radius, the chances are that any serious incident, if it happened, would kill 5,000 people. What ultimately is being said in a quantified risk assessment is that the five or six people who live near the pipeline are an acceptable risk because there are only five or six of them. That is not fair particularly since the people who have been put at risk have no direct personal benefit from the pipeline. In this instance, five people decided they would not allow themselves to become the acceptable risk simply because of the small number involved.
The other issue is the project itself. The Minister of State said it is becoming common practice to place terminals onshore. I know the Minister of State well. He has never in his life uttered a word in the House that he does not believe is true.
If there is a body of practice on onshore terminals why could not the two companies carrying out quantified risk assessment find any historical evidence of the risk of a major fracture of that pipeline? They had to use analogy and similar projects within companies but they could not find a single similar project anywhere in the world which bore comparison to this one. How can that be if onshore terminals are now becoming common practice? The Minister of State should be careful not to believe what Shell tells him.
I have evidence of a quantified risk assessment carried out on Shell's behalf in Australia approximately five years ago in which there was a fundamental flaw in the design which was missed in the quantified risk assessment. Had the Government authorities in Australia not spotted the fundamental flaw an offshore rig would have been constructed and had an entirely predictable and likely event happened hundreds of people could have been killed. A quantified risk assessment is done on the data supplied by the client, in this case by Shell, and it is not independent. If there is to be a safety review, it is desperately important that the first brief of the company must be to know whether this is inherently safe or whether there are margins of uncertainty because it is a unique project. That is the concern of the people of Mayo, not that a 70 bar pipeline or a 120 bar pipeline will go through but that one that is designed to operate at 350 bar and which the consultants, who did the quantified risk assessment, recommended should be tested to 420 bar. That is an enormous pressure. I am not aware of a 420 bar pipeline having been used anywhere except within the confines of a sophisticated processing plant run exclusively and populated exclusively by trained personnel. The idea that one of those would run within 70 m of a person's home is not something I, as a confirmed technophile, find reassuring.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have mixed sympathies on this subject. I am certain that for the vast majority of Members if a pipeline and installation were to be located as close to our houses as in the case of the Rossport five we would have some reservations. I can think of a couple of Ministers who might make strenuous efforts to have it diverted elsewhere. We cannot be dismissive of concerns. In regard to those huge installations no one say on a rational basis that an accident is unlikely to occur. If this were looming in front of oneself, it would be hard to still one's fears completely.
This raises the issue of the relationship between big corporations and isolated communities or individuals and big corporations do not always go the right way about it. They appear to think that if they have the support of the Government and the authorities they do not need to worry too much about local communities and consent. The culture in Ireland, whatever about any other country, is that one needs the consent of the local community in addition to everything else if one wants to proceed smoothly with projects of this kind. It is clear Shell did not put enough effort into that area and forcing its way through by the law was a definite mistake. Contrary to Senator Ryan's view I am sure the Minister worked hard to terminate a very unsatisfactory situation. There is a problem with conflict in Ireland. In general we are reasonably flexible most of the time but when we get into the trenches it is sometimes hard to get out of them. The law needs to be re-examined in this regard because keeping people in prison for the length of time these five men were imprisoned is unsatisfactory.
It is hard to give people absolute assurances on safety. My house in Dublin is supplied by natural gas and there have been instances over the past 20 or 30 years where houses or apartments have been damaged in gas explosions. I appreciate that the problem is small in scale but somebody died in such an explosion within the past 20 years, so it is difficult to give absolute assurances on safety. Nonetheless, I welcome the safety review concerning the Corrib project. The Minister has spoken of such reviews becoming common practice for analogous projects, but it would be helpful if that point could be spelled out, including where such developments have taken place and where they are planned.
My sympathy parts from the Rossport five in that there has been an attempt to suggest that we should go back to the oil exploration terms of the 1970s. I see no case for doing that. Norway may have a brilliant regime which is tailored to its circumstances but Ireland is not Norway. The point has been well made that if our exploration terms were so ridiculously advantageous, how is it that the oil companies have not been piling in over the past 12 or 13 years to exploit them? The fact is that they have not done so.
There is a higher rate of tax at 25%, which applies to oil exploration profits, but while oil and gas are central to Norway's prosperity that will never be the case here. We may have envisioned that being the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s but the Celtic tiger came into being through a completely different route and, therefore, we must be realistic. I have not been impressed by the sight of various left-wing groups piling on board and trying to overturn decisions by legally constituted bodies, as well as the terms on which such decisions are based.
There is an issue of confidence here. Foreign businesses will watch closely how we handle these matters. If it is the case that, despite going through all the legal procedures, the system does not work, this will make people pause for thought.
It is significant that the Leader of the Opposition in the Dáil has his seat in the constituency of Mayo, while the Leader of the Labour Party in the Dáil also comes from that part of the country. I notice that both of them have been careful not to underwrite the Rossport agitation in any complete sense because of credibility factors going into Government.
Local benefits need to be examined, including investment in the gas network, improving infrastructure, local employment and tourism. There are also national benefits from a more secure gas supply. I hope the process that is under way will lead to a conclusion. If it requires the oil companies to be a bit more generous to some of the people concerned, then so be it. There is a need for Shell in particular to repair its relations with the local population and to go to every possible length to meet people's concerns without abandoning the project.
I listened to Senator Mansergh's contribution with great interest and in response to his last comment I would say that Shell really needs to revise its entire ethos and modus operandi. The company stinks worldwide, but we were not sufficiently aware of this fact and we have let them away with potential murder in this country. If, as Senator Mansergh also said, international business will look at what is happening here, then let them look. Let them see that Irish people and the Government have standards. It seems extraordinary that five decent, respectable people in the community were sent to jail at the instigation of Shell Oil. These men did not have to go to jail but they were pushed into that position by the company. It also seems extraordinary that they were jailed while trying to defend their own homes, welfare and possibly even their lives, which should be a constitutional imperative.
Some technical aspects emerged from the court proceedings that may require the attention of the Oireachtas. I was astonished, for example, to find that when the men went to court to seek an injunction they were told by the judge that they could not have an injunction because they were in contempt of court. How many other civil and human rights are extinguished by the fact that one is held to be in contempt of court? How does the law of contempt work? Following a conversation with a learned judge recently, I understand that the concept of contempt came originally from the ecclesiastical courts. It is unsatisfactorily defined in legislation and it is left to the decision of a judge based on a certain amount of precedent. That is not satisfactory, particularly when it has been highlighted that these men were sent to jail on this basis.
These men were right to protect their homes. There used to be a saying that "the Englishman's home is his castle". Ironically, in Finnegan's Wake, James Joyce changes that saying to read, "the Irishman's home is his coffin". The Rossport five were afraid of an untested pipeline with unusually high pressures passing within 70 m of their homes, which constitutes a real and definite threat.
From the beginning, the whole process has been vitiated by different ministerial decisions. The decision of Coillte to sell 400 acres without advertisement or any attempt at public tendering had an effect on Shell's commercial decisions. Once the company had that block of land it predetermined the location and route of the project and, thus, Shell was under no pressure to do anything more in that regard. That was a significant failure of imagination on the part of the authorities.
The former Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, signed the Corrib development plan in April 2002. It sounds very bland to sign such a plan but this act legally committed the State to support Shell and it was done prior to the granting of planning permission. It was done on the basis of the Department's own marine licensing vetting committee but the MLVC did not consider a shallow water platform so how did the project come about?
I wish to place on the record of the House what the senior officer of An Bord Pleanála said about this decision: "How the MLVC came to its conclusions would appear to be beyond the realms of a rational approach to the planning of this major infrastructural development and exhibits nothing short of prematurity." It is beyond rationality. First, this block of land was granted and, second, we had this unusual support based on what is seen as a flawed argument by the Government.
Should we feel secure because Shell is involved? I do not think so. If we look at the company's track record internationally, we can see it is good at spin. It bought into things like National Geographic and it sponsors environmental programmes on television, while simultaneously destroying the environment in places such as Nigeria. Its modus operandi although subtly changed from Nigeria is in essence precisely the same and reveals a complete contempt for local people as long as it can get the Government on its side and its PR merchants in with the spin.
Let us consider the record in Nigeria. Shell Oil was complicit in the fact that the Nigerian Government hanged nine environmentalists for protesting peacefully in 1995. The tribunal that convicted the men was a joint effort between Shell and the Nigerian Government. These people protested because of the enormous amounts of oil spillage in their territory against which they were totally unprotected. Between 1976 and 1991 some 2,976 oil spills occurred in the Niger delta. A World Bank investigation found that the levels of hydrocarbon pollution in Ogoniland were more than 60 times the US limits. This was confirmed in 1997 by a Project Underground survey which found petroleum hydrocarbons in one Ogoni village's water source at 360 times the limit set for the European Community. This is the respect for the environment that Shell Oil has in Nigeria.
Let us consider how Shell copes with this situation. In Nigeria as in Ireland there is a rebellious local population. Shell uses the local existing institutions to hand. In Ireland there is a complacent Government and requirements are placed on judges to make certain decisions. I do not criticise the Judiciary in that it is working with what it has. Shell contributes to the military funding in the areas where it needs to suppress the people. Shell has admitted that it has paid directly for visits to two villages in Ogoniland. These visits were as a result of a peaceful demonstration by the local inhabitants. It has also admitted purchasing weapons for the local police force which guards its facilities. Many people believe that Shell's involvement in the military aspect is much greater.
Bearing in mind that the police are partly funded by Shell Oil, a classified memorandum from a police leader in this area described his plans for "psychological tactics of displacement-wasting". This is what Shell is doing in the west of Ireland; it is displacing the people. The memorandum further stated: "Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken." It is prepared to be ruthless militarily and it is prepared to be ruthless in its involvement in the courts. Let us consider what it did in the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa. We now know that two significant witnesses in that case were suborned by Shell with offers of money and employment in the Shell group.
I am not just some left-wing crank talking about this matter. The United Nations Special Rapporteur's report on Nigeria published in 1998 accused both Nigeria and Shell of abusing human rights and failing to protect the environment. It condemned Shell for a "well armed security force which is intermittently employed against protestors". This is what we are dealing with. This is the heart of darkness.
Let us consider the dangers. Shell places advertisements and gets the media involved. It stated that the gas coming from the head to Bellanaboy is treated gas. I agree that chemicals will be injected into it, for example, anti-freeze and corrosion inhibitor. However, it is still untreated gas and is just as dangerous. While it can claim to add chemicals, they are not chemicals that will alleviate the situation.
The gas will pass through the pipe at enormous pressure. Has anybody considered that this activity will take place over a bog? We had a bog slide a year or two ago. It is a highly unstable environment. They talk of floating a pipe on a concrete platform, which would be absolutely useless. A US army corps of engineers manual on foundations in soft ground suggests that considerably more than a simple concrete raft would be necessary.
I have received a letter from a learned gentleman with a PhD in this area in which he suggests that in particular conditions, for example a cold and foggy day in February with the soil and sea temperatures at approximately 5° centigrade, a pipe burst could result in an enormous explosion from a hemispherical cloud 272 m across and 136 m high.
It would be impossible for any fire brigade to deal with such an explosion. We need to be very careful and should support the plain people of Ireland against a multinational corporation that has a record that stinks to high heaven and is clearly dangerous to human life.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. His contribution to the debate was very useful. As he said in his opening remarks the issue has moved on considerably in the past week in that the injunction has been lifted and the five Rossport men have been released. It is a matter of regret to me, as it is to everybody in the House, that five decent men were jailed for 94 days. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, have taken steps to improve the situation. The Minister announced his intention to appoint a mediator and hopes that progress can be made now that the five men have been released.
The Labour Party tabled a motion last week and many of the issues to which it referred, including independent mediation and the release of the five men, have been dealt with. Some of the issues it raised and ones that I would raise, for example the danger to the environment and health and safety matters, are still very serious issues, with which I hope the Minister will deal. It would be very useful to get Shell's views. Shell has not given much information on the issue in recent months. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has probably been a better PR man than representatives of Shell.
As someone living in Mayo's neighbouring county of Galway, I have seen very little identification or quantification of the benefits for County Mayo and the north west in general. It would be useful to get some information on the proposed development in this regard. We also need to ascertain the benefits for the country. While bringing gas ashore might benefit County Galway, the midlands and perhaps the east, we have no indication of what will happen in the north west, which needs to be clarified. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, spoke to the media about the safety of workers, which is an issue that might be forgotten.
The rise in oil prices places urgency on finding alternative forms of energy. The infrastructure of the west is important and needs to be clarified. In considering benefits to an area, I think in particular of areas where milled peat is provided from our bogs. One would normally expect a briquette factory or that the milled peat would be used for the creation of energy. Similarly gas stations should be available as a natural follow on from having gas onshore and we should expect employment. I see no attempt by Shell to indicate the numbers in or type of employment envisaged.
Another matter which should be dealt with is the proximity of the line to people's dwellings. Advantica Consultants are to look at that issue but it amazes me that it could not have been dealt with before now. I admire much of the work the ESB does in bringing energy to the regions, particularly to the west and north west, where some of the terrain has created difficulties. However, I have gone to the ESB on numerous occasions to argue with it about the need to move a line. I have seen proposals by the ESB to bring lines across people's fields when it could easily bring them across a boundary fence, for example. I have sometimes argued that it could bring lines across forestry areas rather than placing networks and masts on very good land. As a public representative one sometimes wins a case and sometimes loses, but at least the ESB listens. I have a feeling that nobody is listening to the Rossport five or the people of north-west Mayo. That is one of the reasons the protest took place and why five people spent 94 days in prison.
Many mistakes were made in the past, perhaps in our rush to get electricity to rural areas, with huge masts being installed and lines being brought across inappropriate areas. Other Senators will no doubt agree that similar mistakes have been made with the installation of mobile telecommunications masts. Deals were done with health boards to put mobile phone masts on top of hospitals, which was most inappropriate. There was a famous deal between the Garda and a mobile phone company to put masts on top of Garda stations. I once saw a mobile phone mast placed right beside a children's playground and a national school. Permission was granted by Galway County Council but thankfully was rejected by An Bord Pleanála.
We should listen again to what people are saying. I hope that Shell will explain some of the issues which it is not explaining. Senator Norris made an important point regarding Shell's involvement in Nigeria. In 1985 I was a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. We intended to visit Nigeria with a Trócaire delegation to visit the Ogoni region, but the Nigerian Government prevented us from going there, or even into Nigeria, because of our wish to go to the Ogoni region. There was no support from Shell, which I found very disappointing. While one cannot blame Shell for all the problems in the Ogoni region, the company has a case to answer with regard to environmental matters. That is one of the reasons the people in Rossport were so concerned that the pipe was coming through their area, very close to houses. They were worried about health, safety and environmental issues and knew that Shell did not have a very good track record in those areas. I welcome the fact that as the Minister of State has said, progress has been made, and I hope we will reach a resolution with regard to the pipeline.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am delighted that the five men from Rossport have been released but I am disappointed that it has taken so long for certain issues to be settled. When this matter first arose, the Fine Gael Party leader, Deputy Kenny, stated on the first day of the debate in the Dáil what he felt needed to be done: that a mediator should be put in place, a safety audit be carried out on the line from the shore to the terminal, and that work on the project should cease in the interim. All this has now happened, but meanwhile, the Rossport men spent 94 days in jail in order to protect their families and loved ones. It is sad that it had to come to that.
Much has already been said on this issue and it is difficult to debate it in the limited time we have. I was a member of Mayo County Council when gas was first discovered in the Corrib basin. The people of Mayo were delighted at the huge gas find off the west coast. The proposal at the time was that the gas would be taken in through the county, while the gas company had the option of taking it in through Killybegs, through Mayo or through Galway. The Mayo County Council members wanted the gas taken in through County Mayo, and the rest is history.
The main issue now is one of safety. I am pleased that the safety auditor is carrying out his work and will be reporting shortly. Either the line from the shore to the terminal is safe or it is not. If not, the Minister will not be able to sign the consent form, and other methods will have to be found if the gas is to be taken ashore. Safety is the kernel. Everyone's safety is important because the loss of even one life would not be compensated for by any amount of gas found or taken in to the terminal in County Mayo.
The Minister of State made four points. He said that the gas find would act as a catalyst for the extension of the Bord Gáis distribution system to the towns and regions; that it would facilitate the improvement of the Mayo region's infrastructure, particularly its electricity supply and distribution network; that it would increase local employment in the short and long term; and that it would also increase Ireland's security of supply by providing a reliable indigenous source of gas, since, with the current increase in oil prices, the strategic value of indigenous gas obviously increases.
Are we to take it from what the Minister of State said that there will be spur lines to Castlebar, Ballina, Westport, Claremorris, Ballinrobe and Belmullet? As I understand it, for towns such as Belmullet in particular, which is the town closest to the gas find, one has to get EU approval for spur lines on the basis of viability and justifiability. The Minister of State might explain that to us, because there are companies in Mayo such as Baxter and Allergan which are waiting for gas, and want it, and see gas as their only means of survival and viability within the region.
My greatest concern is the safety issue and the fact that the people of Mayo are getting nothing out of the gas find. The final point made by Senator Burke is crucial. The people of Belmullet, the town closest to the gas find, and also the other towns mentioned, should get access to the gas and get the value of it. Even if the safety audit finds the gas pipeline to be safe, it should be moved further away from houses. The gas could be brought in along by the river bed. It does not need to come to shore at the point chosen. It could come along the bed of the river which flows into the sea there, or could go further down the bay, away from the houses. That is crucial. It is also crucial that the gas be taken into Ireland. We need it for security of supply among other things.
We should not forget too that there are currently 350 people unemployed in north Mayo because of work on the pipeline being stopped. I am not saying this has anything to do with the safety issue, which is separate. Nothing will ever be 100% safe. As soon as we satisfy ourselves that it is as safe as can be, we should then move the pipeline away from the houses. We should also ensure that Shell complies with the law.
I have never trusted Shell, particularly given what Senator Kitt has said and how Shell operated in Nigeria for years. I have spoken many times about Shell over the years. I do not believe Shell most of the time and, in many ways, the company has bullied the local people. At the same time, however, the local people should recognise what they are up against. They should be clear about their objectives and accept that mediation will only work if both sides agree to move their positions slightly. The issue that unites everybody is safety. Let us get the safety issue dealt with, after which the question of moving the pipeline and other matters can be tackled and the gas can be taken safely onshore.
Senator White, this was ordered by the House this morning. It has nothing to do with me. I simply implement the orders of the House. The order of the House is that the Minister is to be called no later than five minutes before the conclusion of the debate at 12.45 p.m., when the Taoiseach is due to arrive. In that context, the Senator is getting a concession in being allowed to speak. I ask her to be brief.
There is no point hanging around and paying the compliment of listening to the Minister and my colleagues. I compliment the Minister on his speech. I agree with the Minister's remark that it was with deep regret he saw the five men from Rossport imprisoned. I can speak on behalf of one of the men. He told me that the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, made valiant efforts to understand this complex issue. Can somebody close the door to the Chamber? I have been asked to say something on behalf of one of the Rossport five but there is terrible noise outside.
It does have something to do with me. On the release of the men last week, an editorial in The Irish Times commented that Members of the Oireachtas did not understand the law and the separation of powers between the Judiciary and the Legislature. My view is that law must be tempered by justice and justice is far superior to law. I cannot blame the judge alone because he was put under pressure in a subliminal way by Shell to make the judgment that the men would be put in prison and remain there for three months. It is an appalling situation. The men were trying to defend their democratic rights, their safety and to ensure that Ireland's natural resources are used for the benefit of the people.
The safety review is now under way. It will be comprehensive and will be carried out independently by recognised experts. The public consultation will take place next week on 12 and 13 October, when there will be an opportunity for all interested parties to participate. Hopefully, it will not be long before the Minister will be in a position to appoint a mediator in this matter.
I have listened attentively to the debate. It was very positive. All speakers believe that we must take advantage of the natural resources offshore and bring them onshore. There are many direct and indirect benefits. The fear, however, and rightly so, is about safety. The safety issue will now be addressed and I hope that as a result of the involvement of the Minister progress can be made in the near future.
There are benefits to the State. This will give us security of supply for a number of years. Currently, 84% of our gas requirement is imported. Between 50 and 60 jobs can be created at the terminal and there could be up to 100 indirect jobs. There is much talk about the concessions this company received. There are approximately 120 bore holes in this country but only four of them have shown success. The cost to the State of doing this exploration would be €1.5 billion but the return on that investment would be almost minimal.
With regard to tax, this country has a generous tax regime which has been most helpful in attracting inward investment. The corporation tax rate of 12.5% is one of our great successes. In this case, however, the corporation tax rate of 25% will apply rather than the 12.5% that applies to other commercial and industrial sectors.
Time does not permit me to comment further. I thank the Senators for their contributions. They were sincere and positive except with regard to the safety issue. This will now be addressed by Advantica, the public consultation process and the appointment of a mediator in the near future.
There is provision for spur lines in the legislation. That will be a matter for Bord Gáis and there might well be a question of subsidy. While there is provision for the lines, that does not necessarily mean they will happen.