Protest Stalls Energy Giant in Rural Ireland
Sunday, September 25, 2005
ROSSPORT, Ireland -- Five farmers from these wind-swept coastal boglands have been locked up in a Dublin prison for nearly three months for blocking construction of a $1.1 billion natural gas pipeline and refinery by the Shell oil group, a standoff that has forced suspension of the largest energy project in Irish history.
The imprisonment of the group known here as the Rossport Five, which includes a 65-year-old former schoolteacher, has sparked protest marches across Ireland and an emotional debate about the pace and balance of economic development in a once-poor country that has become one of Europe's greatest success stories.
"The government and Shell should be ashamed of themselves," said Aggie Philbin, whose husband, Brendan, was one of the men jailed on June 29 for refusing a court order to allow Shell to lay pipeline across their farmland in rural County Mayo in northwestern Ireland. "These are innocent men standing up for the rights of their families."
The jailed men and their supporters accuse Shell and the government of ignoring safety concerns and bullying this village of 150 people in a rush to complete a coveted project.
The Corrib gas field project aims to extract gas from a trillion-cubic-foot deposit nearly two miles beneath the seafloor about 50 miles off the Mayo coast. The government says the project would help fuel the country's booming economy for the next 20 years and rank as the second-largest foreign investment ever in Ireland.
But the farmers and their supporters, who have set up a round-the-clock protest vigil at the refinery construction site, said the pipeline puts their homes in grave danger. They said it would pass within 70 yards of many houses and incinerate whole families if it exploded.
In an open letter last month from Cloverhill Prison, the five jailed men said they felt betrayed by their government and would continue to fight the project "because of the certainty that if this pipeline as currently proposed ruptures we, our families and neighbors, will die." Mark Garavan, a spokesman for Shell to Sea, a group supporting the men, said prison rules prohibit the farmers from being interviewed by reporters.
The men's imprisonment has deeply divided a society that has passions both for economic development and underdogs. While many people see the Rossport farmers as simply standing in the way of progress, many others side with them. Their plight has also touched a nerve in a place where land rights are considered sacrosanct and people have staged bloody rebellions to protect them.
"Public opinion has shifted radically in their favor since they went to jail," said Fintan O'Toole, a columnist for the Irish Times. "They do have a substantial case to make."
O'Toole said many people in Ireland agreed with the men's demand that Shell process the gas at sea rather than onshore. Shell officials said that would be too expensive and dangerous because of extremely rough seas during winter, and the government has backed that position. Shell officials said they had already spent about $600 million for exploration and preparations to lay a 20-inch-wide pipeline to shore, then another five miles inland to a new refinery.
Opponents have also complained that Statoil, Norway's state-controlled energy company, holds a 36.5 percent stake in the project as Shell's minority partner. "So the citizens of Norway own much of the gas, and the people of Ireland own none," O'Toole said.
Top officials at Shell and in the Irish government say the Corrib project is good for Ireland, safe and environmentally sound. They say the farmers are required by Irish law to allow the pipeline to be laid on their property.