GARDAÍ CALL it the "golden mile" because of overtime opportunities, while locals refer to it as the "Shell highway". A mile-long stretch of road along windswept bogland in north Mayo has been the focus for continuous opposition to the Corrib gas project since work on the €200 million refinery resumed in October 2006, writes Lorna Siggins.
The road borders the "largest construction site in Ireland", as Shell calls it, and it says the refinery is 30 per cent complete. State approvals are being sought for an essential component - a modified onshore pipeline route.
"The Corrib gas partners recognise that this project can only succeed in partnership with the local community," Shell EP Ireland's chief executive, Andy Pyle, has pledged.
The difficulty for Pyle and his colleagues in Statoil and Marathon is that securing this pledge is proving far more elusive than he may have imagined after the September 2005 release from prison of a group of protesters known as the Rossport Five.
The five, and the Shell to Sea campaign that was formed around them, gained much public support. Marine minister Noel Dempsey commissioned a safety review of the pipeline, which recommended that its pressure be halved. He also appointed a mediator, Peter Cassells.
Cassells's efforts proved unsuccessful, partly because he was precluded from dealing with the project in its entirety. In his report of July 2006, he recommended modification of the pipeline route. Work resumed on the refinery later that year, early-morning protests began, and there were several clashes with up to 200 gardaí deployed in Erris to provide security for the developers. Ironically, television images of elderly people being manhandled into ditches did nothing for the Shell to Sea campaign.
The bill for Garda deployment has been running at €800,000 a month, based on figures supplied by Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan.
Shell's modified pipeline route runs through commonage and Special Areas of Conservation, and is set to prove as controversial as the original. The decision to issue compulsory acquisition orders may result in further protests. Hence last weekend's significant decision by key Mayo Shell to Sea supporters to drop that "refine at sea" demand, and suggest a compromise proposal on the coast that would not require an onshore pipeline and would be away from drinking-water supplies.
Shell, which reported record earnings again this year of $27.6 billion (€17.7 billion), can write off all expenditure against tax.
It secured planning approval and an integrated pollution prevention control licence for Bellanaboy, and believes it still has full State support.
The continuing spectre which has haunted all this activity - and now haunts Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan - has been the wording of Bord Pleanála inspector Kevin Moore in his report on the first, unsuccessful, planning application for the refinery in April 2003.
Moore described Bellanaboy as the "wrong site" from strategic planning, environmental, regional and sustainable development perspectives. He noted that there was a "failure in understanding the community and environment into which this large industrial development seeks to be sited" and "this emphasises how out of context this proposal is".
Shell's subsequent successful planning application modified some of its plans but did not change the location.
That inland location requires one of the longest high-pressure pipelines of its type in Europe. It also lies within three water catchments, including a public drinking-water supply for some 10,000 people at Carrowmore lake.