Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Tale of rural Irishman who blocked oil giant

Extract from The San Francisco Chronicle:

Farmer rallied town and nation to halt Shell's gas pipeline.

(04-22) 04:00 PDT Rossport, Ireland -- Willie Corduff is a quiet man who hates arguments. But when Shell E&P Ireland said it would build a $1.1 billion pipeline and refinery near his front yard in this small Irish village in County Mayo, the father of six fought back.

The 52-year-old farmer rallied his neighbors, spent three months in jail for denying the oil company access to his land and eventually halted the largest energy project in Irish history while raising the question on a national scale about economic development versus community consent and environmental concerns.

"I am not trying to cause problems or get publicity. In fact it is the opposite," said Corduff, who has been awarded the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe for leading the anti-pipeline battle. "All I want is to stay where I am. ... My heart and soul are in this place."

But the discovery in 1996 of a huge gas field 50 miles off the Mullet Peninsula on the Atlantic coast threatens to change the rural landscape. Shell E&P Ireland, in partnership with Statoil Exploration (Norway's state energy company) and Ireland's Marathon International Petroleum, plans to develop the field to supply 60 percent of Ireland's natural gas.

To attract further investment, the government turned over all rights to the Corrib gas field to Shell and its partners, agreeing to receive no tax dollars in return.

While the gas field could earn Shell and its partners in excess of $60 billion in the project's estimated 20-year lifetime, Rossport would receive no royalties and its residents would have to pay full market price for gas. According to Shell Oil's Web site, the project would have generated employment for 700 during construction phase, but only 50 long-term jobs.

The Corduffs also discovered the pipeline the consortium planned to run through their village wasn't the typical low-pressure line that traverses other communities. Instead, it would carry raw, untreated gas at rates of pressure five times the standard measure, unprecedented levels in a populated area -- and just 230 feet from their home.

The deal violated European Union environmental laws requiring local participation and review, according to Shell to Sea, the grassroots campaign begun by the Corduffs and others.

He and four neighbors then refused to allow consortium workers access to their lands. In June 2005, Shell obtained a court injunction against them. All were imprisoned in Dublin for 94 days for contempt of court.

But their incarceration marked a turning point. Previously, the plight of Mayo families defending their land was given little publicity, but suddenly the faces of the five men were everywhere on the news as the Rossport Five. Soon there were rallies of support across the country and protesters picketed Shell gas stations.

In Rossport, "Shell Out" signs sprouted along roads, and opponents of the project set up round-the-clock blockades at the refinery site and built a campsite dubbed the "Rossport Solidarity Camp." Most important, Shell to Sea has grown from a local environmental campaign to a national movement focused on the rights of local communities.

Owens Wiwa, brother of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa -- a past Goldman Prize winner who was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government for opposing Shell's operations in that African nation -- visited the five activists in jail, calling their plight "a classic David and Goliath story."

In August, the consortium suspended groundwork at the terminal site, agreeing to find an alternative route for the pipeline "within the vicinity of Rossport" and limit pipeline pressure to just twice the standard measure. In October, 150 police officers were sent to allow the company to resume work on the terminal.

And on Wednesday, a High Court in Dublin ruled that the Compulsory Acquisition Orders against the five landowners have to be dropped -- effectively making it impossible for the consortium to continue with its original pipeline route.

See the full article:
Veronique Mistiaen, Chronicle Foreign Service

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