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dpa German Press Agency: ‘Save us from the fires of Shell,’ say Irish gas protestors

By Clare Byrne

Published: Thursday October 19, 2006

By Clare Byrne, Mayo, Ireland- For over two weeks the site of a planned gas terminal in north-west Ireland has been the scene of tense early- morning standoffs between police and prayer-chanting protestors. The protestors, ranging in age from teens to retirement age and generally numbering around 100, say that praying helps them to focus as they begin their daily picket outside a Shell refinery at Bellanaboy, County Mayo.

The protest peaks each day with the arrival around 8 a.m. of a police-protected convoy of jeeps transporting workers, usually to jeers from the crowd.

Some of the workers hide their faces as they pass, others stare grimly into the distance.

“Save us from the fires of Shell,” says one of the placards carried by the protestors.

The decision by Shell E & P Ireland to recommence work on its controversial terminal on October 3 after a one-year hiatus marked a fresh escalation in its six-year dispute with local residents.

However, the mood in the area, which is divided between support for the protestors and support for a project seen as likely to generate jobs, is so bitter it has been likened by some to Ireland’s 1922-1923 Civil War.

A year ago, a very different mood prevailed when five local men, nicknamed the Rossport Five after their village, were released from prison after serving three months over their part in the long-running protest, now into its sixth year.

People lined the narrow roads to greet the men – three farmers and two schoolteachers – on their return to this remote area of undulating bogland.

Back then the dispute centred around the route of the pipeline through which Shell proposes to bring gas ashore from the Corrib offshore gas field to the processing terminal nine kilometres inland.

The high-pressure pipeline – designed for pressure levels unprecedented in populated areas – had been mapped to run within 70 metres of the homes of the Rossport Five and other landowners.

When Shell – the biggest stakeholder in the gas project that also involves Norway’s Statoil and Irish company Marathon – finally agreed to reroute the pipeline away from the houses, many thought a resolution was nigh.

But a core demand of the protestors from the Shell to Sea campaign had not been addressed: that the gas be processed offshore.

An opinion poll carried out recently for state Irish-language channel TG4 showed six out of ten people in Mayo thought that the gas terminal should be located offshore.

Shell has always ruled out this option, citing safety concerns for workers as well as the increased cost of offshore processing. The company points to other projects using onshore processing, such as the Ormen Lange gas field off Norway, as proof it is becoming the norm.

Treating the gas at sea is “not an option,” Shell E & P Ireland spokeswoman Susan Shannon confirmed to Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Plus, the onshore terminal at Bellanaboy has been through all the planning requirements, she noted.

Shell is also quick to point out the jobs and investment it is bringing to the area. The contract to build the terminal, worth 28 million euros (35 million dollars), went to an Irish civil engineering company, Roadbridge, which says 84 per cent of its 135 workers at the site are locals.

Shell estimates the project will create up to 700 jobs in the construction phase and 50 permanent jobs at the terminal once it is up and running.

However, according to Shell to Sea spokesman Mark Garavan, “the inland processing of the gas poses an unacceptably high threat to the health and safety of the local population.”

Air and water emissions from the gas processing that would be “emitted onto the community” would contain such elements as cadmium and mercury, he says.

Garavan also voiced local suspicions over the intended future use of the site. At 400 acres, he believes Shell intends to transform Bellanaboy into a giant depot for processing gas not only from the Corrib field, but from other future finds on the Atlantic Margin.

The Irish government, meanwhile, keeps stressing the importance of Corrib in reducing Ireland’s dependence on gas imports, which currently account for 85 per cent of supply.

Too much pressure on Shell might lead it to reconsider the project, they fear, noting that the Corrib gas find in 1996 was the first major gas discovery off the Irish coast in over 30 years.

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