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Published: Western People, 15 August 2006

Anyone who has observed the stand-off between Shell & Enterprise Petroleum Ireland on the one hand, and the Rossport 5 / Shell-to-Sea campaign on the other, especially from a distance, will have been struck and surprised at why and how much things were allowed to get out of hand. Even when it was clear that neither the firm nor the protestors could win, no-one shouted stop.

The Corrib gas controversy didn’t flare suddenly. It was years in the making and was handled so ineptly at every stage that open conflict was both inevitable and unavoidable. Shell’s decision to seek the jailing of the Rossport 5 has already gone down as one of the most bizarre acts of corporate madness, one from which the company may never fully recover. Where then for a compromise?

Gurus call this type of thing escalation of commitment. It’s a fever that grips people and organisations, when they take more and greater risks to get something, which they feel may be slipping further and faster from their grasp. As a result, they are prepared to turn logic on its head, even when self-interest dictates they should pull back and re-group for an alternative course of action.

The report by mediator Peter Cassells is the second major prong of the current offensive to right the initial wrongs of this project. The first was the safety review by Advantica, which recommended a drastic cut in pipeline pressure, along with beefed-up safety measures, independent audits and inspections, and a full review of the pipeline if it was ever to work beyond its normal retirement age.

The Cassells Report is significant, not so much for its content, but for its implicit acknowledgement that there are few enough options available to settle this long-running row. In truth, the bones of the mediator’s solution have been around for a year or more, and they would be sensible thinking in any event.

Mr Cassells’ key proposal is that the pipeline should be re-routed, as it comes too close to certain houses along the original route. To the extent that he addresses the safety issue, it is to say that consent to operate the pipeline should only be given when the 144 bar pressure limit proposed by Advantica is in place.

The idea of involving Bord Gais is aimed primarily at providing reassurance to a sceptical public that safety is a key priority. But does it also suggest that the mediator found the atmosphere between two of the sides to be so difficult that only a third party respected by objectors would be trusted to finish the project?

Shell must now be hoping that its stock is rising fast in north Mayo. Its acceptance of both the safety review and the mediator’s proposals; and now, its decision to re-route the gas pipeline and scale back legal proceedings, seem to be part of a deliberate strategy, albeit belated, which seeks to get the firm working with communities rather than driving a coach-and-four through them.

However, though the company may feel satisfied that the issues of safety and proximity have been adequately and comprehensively addressed, it may not be out of the woods just yet. The Shell-to-Sea campaign does not see the world in such black-and-white terms. And while it certainly doesn’t represent the full spectrum of local opposition to the project, as the grouping most closely aligned with the five men who were prepared to go to jail rather than allow a production pipeline through their community, it is a potent force that must be reckoned with.

Separate to the mediation process in Rossport, there have been some important parallel moves going on, which might or might not help in terms of improving the mood. The Energy Regulator, for example, has announced a study into how individual towns, and towns grouped on a geographic or regional basis, could be hooked up to the gas network. Depending on how this pans out, it could mean that Ballina, Castlebar, Claremorris, Westport and others will get natural gas soon. Under the old policy, they would have found it hard to get gas at all.

The Department of Communications, Marine & Natural Resources, meanwhile, is to carry out a feasibility study and cost/benefit analysis for a new gas-fired power station to serve the west and north-west. Bellacorick has been mentioned as a possible location. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both moves reflect a greater sense of clarity and cohesion in official policy, which simply wasn’t there before this controversy exploded onto the national stage.

For now though, all eyes are on Rossport and the surrounding communities, as people wait to see what will happen after the summer break. The Shell-to-Sea group have already binned the Cassells Report in the sense that they claim it will simply shift an old problem onto a new community. Local people who always wanted the project, and those who favoured it but with genuine safety concerns, must now decide if enough has been done, or committed, to justify their support.

Now that Shell has agreed to put more money into improving the safety of the project, and decided to change the route of the pipeline itself, and accepted it has a responsibility to ensure that greater benefits accrue to the local community and the region, the way might just be about to open for an honest compromise.

The Energy Regulator has recently warned that to maintain supplies in the event of further delays at the Corrib Gas Field, we might have to spend as much as €200m upgrading the interconnectors with Scotland. In the long run, we might have to do this anyway, but bringing indigenous supplies ashore now would mean that these funds could be put to a more productive use now, here in the West.

Ireland is at the mercy of external supply and price pressures because we depend increasingly on imported gas to meet our needs. Rather than being at the end of the pipe, we could be at its beginning instead. We could draw all we want, store what we might need and export the remainder. True, we would have little or no control over the prices we pay, but at least our supplies would be secure.