According to Dr Mark Garavan, Seanad candidate in this year’s election and spokesman for the Shell to Sea campaign, it is “the refusal to accept local participation” which is at the heart of the seven-year conflict in Erris.
“In my own view,” says Garavan, “it’s a huge issue. Of course, it’s hard to know how huge an issue Corrib will be in the General Election itself, but the issues thrown up by the situation are hugely important, to do with the nature of democracy.
“And for me,” he adds, “that has always been the biggest issue, the right of citizens to participate in decisions affecting them - that’s democracy. Corrib should be designed around community consent.”
The Corrib gas field is controlled by a consortium, including Shell (45%), the Norwegian state company Statoil (36.5%) and Marathon (18.5%), and is worth up to •8 billion, according to sources in the oil and gas industry.
And, according to the Centre for Public Inquiry, the Corrib and associated fields in the Slyne/Erris basin off the north west coast are estimated to be worth up to •50 billion. Opponents of the onshore refinery, say the Norwegian tax-payer (through Statoil) benefits more directly from the gas find than the Irish public.
By way of contrast, in 1973, when the oil company Mobil discovered the Statfjord oil field off the coast of Norway, it was required, by Norwegian law, to bring in Statoil, the state-owned oil and gas company, as a 50% partner in the development of the field. The deal started the process of training the Statoil workforce, who took on-the-job training, and it secured the transfer of knowledge from the oil corporations, and the development of indigenous Norwegian industry.
And in 1975, the Norwegian government was taking up to 90% of the oil profits. “That’s the kind of model we ought to have but we don’t have,” says Dr Garavan. “If people realise what they could have, then it could be an election issue.”
In 1975, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in Ireland paid attention to the Norwegian developments, and Minister for Industry and Commerce, Justin Keating, introduced the Ireland Exclusive Offshore Licensing Terms for oil and gas exploration, ushering in three principles regarding State revenue and participation based on the Norwegian model which meant the State, acting for the people as owners of the resources, should be paid for this resource; that companies engaging in offshore development on the Irish Continental Shelf should be subject to Irish taxation; and that, since the resources are public property, the State must have the right to participate in their exploitation.
In the years since, those three principles have been dismantled. Successive Irish governments have relaxed taxation and licensing terms to make them more favourable to firms involved in petrochemical exploration. The terms mean that Ireland grants leases without taking royalty payments or a stake in projects - as is done in some other countries - and imposes a tax rate of 25% on profits, against which companies can write off the huge cost of exploration, meaning that in practice their tax liabilities should be much lower.
In 1987, Dick Spring, then leader of the Labour Party, called the move “an act of economic treason”. Petrochemical companies like Shell and the Irish government say that these conditions are needed to encourage oil and gas exploration in Ireland.
“As I talk to people,” says Garavan, “this is an issue for them, they do think people have been treated shabbily, but how that will translate into votes is hard to know.
“It’s up to people like me to make it an issue,” he adds, referring to his Seanad candidacy.
Yet, is Corrib only a local issue? True, the protests are mostly local. But it has been argued that the controversy has awakened a national debate, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. And the main issue in that debate, says Garavan “is of benefits foregone by the state.”
“Corrib is a fantastic asset with incredible value,” he says. “The problem we have is that the government thinks the interests of oil and gas companies and governments are the same. There is that phrase ‘the rip-off republic’. Well, Corrib is one of the greatest rip-offs. There is something a bit bizzare about it. It’s shameful, the trinkets that pass for benefits.”
The benefits appear to be 50-70 permanent jobs on the refinery site after the construction work is done, and the security of gas supply. The Irish government says the Corrib gas field is expected to provide up to 60% of Ireland’s domestic gas requirements when it is up and running, replacing the Kinsale field which is running out, and says it will provide a welcome indigenous gas supply to Ireland.
Those opposed question the strategic argument, citing statements from Bord Gais which say that supplies from gas interconnectors to the UK are very secure, and that “the possibility of gas supplies to Ireland from these sources being restricted is very remote”.
It appears that the Corrib Gas controversy and the other election issues - health, education, environment, economy, infrastructure, etc. - are not autonomous, isolated, fenced off from each other. Like the pipelines which run beneath the earth we walk upon, the issues are part of a larger, though often unseen, national grid, a network of issues which interlink, which are not independent but are part of a complex, contradictory - and often conflicting - system of the hopes and fears, the interests of the electorate.
Garavan says “People are tired of the old party political game. They want politics that focus on real issues, not on the politicians’ own self-interests. People are disenchanted. They want a society where people are treated with respect. They don’t want any system, be it left or right, to drown out their dignity. “And Corrib highlights that,” he says, “people being treated without respect and without dignity.”
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