Oil Giant Gets a Shelling: David Versus Goliath Off the Irish Coast
The documentary "The Pipe," shown during the Berlinale film festival, tells the story of residents in a remote Irish coastal community who took on the oil giant Shell, and their own government. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to the director about the residents' David and Goliath struggle.
Amid the choppy waves off Ireland's west coast, Pat "the Chief" O'Donnell steers his small fishing boat into the path of the Solitaire, the largest pipe-laying vessel in the world. Surrounded by Irish Navy ships and police boats, O'Donnell repeatedly refuses to move out of the way -- until the police eventually board his fishing boat and arrest him.
This David and Goliath scene is part of the dramatic footage in the documentary "The Pipe," which screened earlier this week as part of the 2011 Berlinale film festival. The movie depicts the ongoing opposition to the construction of the Corrib natural gas pipeline off the coast of County Mayo in western Ireland.
The struggle of the small coastal community of Erris to have the pipeline rerouted away from their homes since the gas reserves were acquired by Royal Dutch Shell in 2002 has attracted little press attention outside of Ireland -- something the documentary aims to change.
"I made this documentary to give the local people a voice," director Risteard Ó Domhnaill told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He felt that they had been unfairly portrayed in the media as backward, anti-Shell lunatics. "I wanted to redress the balance," he says.
According to Ó Domhnaill, the core of the ongoing eight-year dispute (the pipeline and onshore refinery are still not operational) is that the local farming and fishing community were not adequately consulted by Shell or the Irish government before planning approval for construction of an onshore pipeline and a refinery were granted.
"They're my pots! My livelihood!" cries local fisherman O'Donnell in the film, as the gigantic Solitaire pipe-laying ship readies itself to begin feeding the pipeline into the sea bed.
The camera follows O'Donnell as he talks about how his family has sustained its crab and lobster fishing business in Broadhaven Bay for generations. He fears his catch may be endangered once the sea bed is ripped up, and that access will be blocked to the areas where he needs to lay his lobster pots.
The EU-designated conservation area is known for its biodiversity and natural beauty, and the green fields and rocky headland sweeping down to the beach are captured to breathtaking effect in the film. One of the residents' concerns was that the Shell project would destabilize the ancient peat bogs, ruin delicate ecosystems and prevent salmon and trout from coming upriver to spawn.
The environmental risk is compounded by residents' safety concerns relating to having a high-pressure gas pipeline passing close by their homes in the village of Rossport, on its way to the Ballinaboy refinery, which Shell built in 2007.
The locals featured in the film have built up a mistrust of Shell over the last eight years. One resident is quoted as saying: "There's the law and then there's Shell's law."
For its part, Shell claims that the Corrib pipeline will supply up to 60 percent of Ireland's gas needs and will directly benefit the local economy in County Mayo to the tune of over 180 million ($246 million), creating over 800 jobs during the construction phase and about 130 permanent jobs. "We believe that the majority of people in Erris want to see the Corrib project delivered so that the full benefits to Erris, County Mayo and Ireland can be realized," Shell Ireland says on its website, insisting that it wants to be "a good neighbor in the areas in which we operate."
Shell declined to participate in the documentary. The director says, after much discussion with the company's public relations people, he decided that the amount of editorial approval they were asking for would compromise the documentary.
'Public Relations Setback'
Shell received planning permission for its onshore refinery, located 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) from the coast, in 2005, even though the planning board had initially rejected the site for health and safety reasons. The film depicts the local reaction to this turnabout as one of alarm -- not only about the site of the refinery, but also about the proposed pipeline route through the community.
Daily protests and physical clashes between demonstrators and the police followed. The government sent in a 200-strong police force to break up the protests (previously, the entire area had been patrolled by a single policeman for years). The documentary's footage presents scenes of disturbing violence against the protesters.
Five local men were arrested during the protests and jailed for three months, becoming known in the media as the "Rossport Five." Their cause and the "Shell to Sea" campaign -- with the aim of having the raw gas refined at sea to reduce the risk to local residents -- made headlines in Ireland and the UK at the time. The Independent in London called it a "David and Goliath story" and "a public relations setback" for Shell.
A Damaged Community
"The Pipe" shows just how all-consuming this fight has become for the locals over the last eight years. The conflict eventually set neighbor against neighbor as disagreements arose over how to handle the situation.
Some more radical residents, like school teacher Maura Harrington, went on hunger strike to try to force the pipe-laying tanker out of the bay. Monica Müller, a German woman who moved to the area 25 years ago, was criticized for not getting involved in protests. Instead, she preferred to fight Shell through the courts.
Others, like the local priests, wanted to sit down and try to find a common solution for alternative pipeline routes. Eco-activists and busloads of students looking for a cause came and went during the last eight years. "They meant well, but did more harm than good," says Ó Domhnaill, who is a former television news cameraman. He explained that, while many people were interested in the issue, they had little in common with the local farmers and fishermen. "They ended up confusing things and leaving again," he says.
Shell insists it has shown "a real willingness" to respond to the locals' concerns. "We believe that we have done everything reasonable to address issues raised by local community and will continue to listen their concerns," the company says on its website. "We continue to seek dialogue and a way forward that allows us to complete the project."
'The Real Villain'
The long battle has yielded some results for the locals. The pipeline through Rossport was deemed unacceptable by the Irish planning board in 2009. Shell then reapplied with an alternative route and was subsequently granted permission in 2010. An Taisce, Ireland's oldest environmental charity, announced in early 2011 that they intend to pursue a judicial review of the latest pipeline route.
The locals featured in the documentary repeatedly express their feeling that they have been abused by their own government. They explain that the Irish government issued Shell compulsory access orders to local and commonly owned land on the pipeline route. The government also declared certain parts of the route exempt from planning. "A village like Rossport is essentially unimportant in terms of political votes," says Ó Domhnaill.
Ó Domhnaill claims that, as far as the Corrib gas project is concerned, the state repeatedly put private interests and greed above the rights of its citizens. "It is a breakdown of democracy," he says. "The Irish government is the real villain in this story."
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