Why Ireland stands to lose €400 billion in natural gas and oil deposits


Concerns about the safety of Shell’s pipeline in Rossport are well known. But that’s not all that’s at stake. Not by 400 billion euro (2007 figure). The oil companies exploiting Ireland’s west coast have got some of the sweetest deals in the world and that doesn’t happen by accident. This article looks at how the Irish state has been busy rolling over for the last thirty years so the multinationals can grab the riches that should belong to us all.


The entire history of the project has been one where laws are introduced for Shell and hundreds of state and private personnel are deployed to enforce this Shell law. Yet those who stand up to Shell find themselves beaten, arrested and jailed. Several campaigners now have permanent injuries arising from such beatings and several more have spent time in jail despite the fact that An Bord Pleanala actually confirmed that Shell’s plan for the experimental pipeline did not meet safety requirements. Well paid media hacks have been deployed to slander the campaigners as part of a multi-million PR spend in this battle between the Golaith of one of the largest multinationals in the world and a David composed of farmers, fishermen, school teachers and their supporters.

Throughout the campaign the Gardaí have arrested campaigners on all sorts of weird pretexts to get them out of the way for Shell. Fisherman Pat O’Donnell was actually arrested under the loitering section of the Public Order Act while fishing his normal route in Broadhaven bay! The reason was not hard to see, the vast bulk of Shell’s pipe-laying ship the Solitaire, on the horizon. Many of these farcical arrests collapse as soon as they get to court. There is a week long special sitting of the court in progress to try and clear some of the backlog of arrests that has built up and despite the enormous establishment bias against the campaign the first couple of days have seen most charges being dismissed. One such campaigner (and fellow WSM member) James McBarron has just had all three charges against him thrown out, in one case video evidence directly contradicted the testimony of the Gardaí who charged him with obstruction. Another favourite target of the Gardaí, Maura Harrington, who has already been jailed four times also had a charge of obstructing traffic dismissed.

The sentencing of Niall Harnett is particularly farcical. On a recent court appearance he was trapped between two sets of doors by a group of Gardaí who roughed him up. As with all such cases his attempt to prosecute one Gardaí for assault failed on a technicality but as anyone who has spent a day in the district courts is aware the Gardaí routinely retaliate when accused of assault by pressing assault charges in return. So today the court believed that Niall assaulted three Gardaí at once, including an inspector and a sergeant and in court! And that no less than seven Gardaí managed to cram into the space between the doors with Niall to witness this extraordinary event.

People present in the court reported that the Gardaí testimony was full of contradictions but the story itself is farcical. You’d laugh at it if it was not for the fact that it has been used to give Niall three sentences of five months each. Luckily they are to run concurrently so he won’t be spending over a year in prison on such fantastical grounds. If his appeal fails maybe only 3 or 4 months of his life will be stolen from him. In court Niall stated: “Inspector Doherty, Sgt. Butler and Garda Egan, I am not prepared to apologise for standing up to them, because they are bullies.”

Mayo Shell to Sea spokesperson Terence Conway responded to the harsh sentence by pointing out that: “This sentence is further evidence of the selective application of the law in relation to Shell’s project in Erris. While campaigners are receiving heavy jail sentences, the pipeline which Shell have illegally brought on land at Glengad, as ruled by An Bord Pleanála, remains in place.”

The state is now taking such desperate measures to criminalise protests because despite the enormous resources at their disposal (which have included not only hired mercenaries but Naval gunboats and air force planes) Shell have suffered delay after delay in the face of the local resistance. They aimed to complete their experimental gas pipeline by 2003, now seven years later in 2010 opposition has again forced them back to the drawing board and to admit that at a minimum completion will be a full decade late with a new target date of 2013. Heads are starting to role once more inside Shell, the Irish Times reported that “Linda Cook, the former head of the gas and power division, was given a $7.6 million severance payment”.

Time is not on Shell’s side. In particular with the onset of the financial crisis, when workers in Ireland are seeing their pay, conditions and social services slashed to bail out a tiny wealthy elite of property speculators and bankers, the scale of the Great Oil & Gas Giveaway under which Shell were given the Corrib field is being revealed. There is growing anger that billions of Euro worth of gas and oil that could be used to fund health-care and education are being given away for next to nothing under terms negotiated behind closed doors by a politician later jailed for corruption. For years the domestic capitalist class and the multinationals have milked workers in Ireland with a minimum of resistance. The struggle in Erris carries not only the threat of having to hand back the gas and oil but also the more general threat of demonstrating that resistance can work. That is why no section of the establishment from the Gardaí to the Navy to 900,000 a year media hacks like Pat Kenny have held back when it comes to slandering and smashing those who continue to resist.

Even the Green Party minister Eamon Ryan, now forcing the project through against the very local resistance he once supported, recognised what was going on when in opposition. In a Dáil speech on 24th November 2005 he argued “Anyone who examines from the outside the process that led to a decision being made on the appeal in this instance would agree that it was not conducted in an open and fair manner. ... I have serious concerns that the Government constantly took Shell's side, in effect, throughout this process. ... I contend that he [Taoiseach Bertie Ahern] put remarkable and untold pressure on An Bord Pleanála to accept the Government's will.”

Niall has lodged an appeal, if it fails he will be jailed alongside local fisherman Pat O’Donnell who is serving seven months in Castlerea for resisting Shell. It’s important that we demonstrate that those whom the state are targeting are not standing alone. For that reason this Saturday Shell to Sea campaigners will be traveling from all over Ireland to show their support to Pat O’Donnell outside the jail.

Caoimhe Kerins from Dublin Shell to Sea said of the planned protest “We are going to be there on the 27th to support Pat because he is an example of man that could not be bullied or bought. His jailing is yet another example of the very harsh punishments being given to prominent campaigners for what are minor public order offences. The community living close to Shell’s proposed refinery are being criminalised, both in sections of the media and through the abuse of the justice system, for their opposition to this disastrous project.”

Hopefully you’ll join people from all over Ireland at the gates of Castlerea on the 27th March, Saturday at 15.30hrs. Local groups are arranging transport there and back from around the country, if you are in Dublin and would like to book a space to travel down with Dublin Shell to Sea please text or ring Dublin S2S on 086 736 2417 . Tickets 15-20 Euro depending on final costs. Even if you can’t make this protest contact Dublin Shell to Sea at the web page below and get copies of their ‘Great Oil & Gas Giveaway’ leaflets to give to your friends, family and fellow workers to further warn ordinary people of the great rip off that is in progress.

The two most well known Irish hydrocarbon deposits, the Corrib field and the Dunquin prospect, are collectively worth at least €400 billion euros. They contain around 33 trillion cubic feet of gas and between 2.5 and 4 billion barrels of oil. The gas in the Corrib belongs to Shell, Statoil and Marathon while the Dunquin prospect is totally controlled by Exxon Mobil and Providence. Ordinary Irish workers will end up buying back our oil and gas while the companies will be charged pitiful tax rates against which they can write off all exploration and construction costs over the past twenty-five years. How did this happen?

Kinsale and the original terms

Gas and oil exploration began in Ireland In the 1960’s and in 1973 Marathon Oil found the first field off the coast of Cork. This became known as the Kinsale field. The Fianna Fail government of the time gave Marathon a once off deal in which Bord Gais bought the field at a reduced rate. Gas and oil exploration continued throughput the 1970’s but little was found.

This exploration was coupled with a change in the political landscape. In 1973 the “National Coalition” government was elected. This compromised Fine Gael and Labour. Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrave became Taoiseach and Labour got seven ministerial posts. Labour’s Justin Keating, a former lecturer in UCD, became minister for industry and commerce.

Keating, ideologically a social democrat, was critical of the terms granted to Marathon Oil. The social democratic model being applied in Norway which was taxing the oil majors up to 90% tax heavily influenced Keating. The initial find occurred in1973 which coincided with the first major oil crisis. This made oil a very valuable commodity and also should have made the Irish fields more lucrative and exploitable.

Keating introduced new terms for exploitation based on three principles what became known as the Keating principles:
1.The State, acting for the people as owners of the resource, should be paid for the resources.
2. Companies engaging in offshore development on the Irish continental shelf should be subject to Irish taxation.
3.Since the resources are public property, the State must have the right to participate in their exploitation.

The main points of the terms were:
(A.) Up to 50% stake find in any commercial field
(B.) 8-16% royalties would be taken.
(C.) 50% Corporation tax.
(D.) The drilling must take place within three years.
(E.) The companies give up to 50% of the field to the State in 4 years.
They also laboured all costs of exploration on the companies.

A Rosy Irish Future?
So by 1974 oil had just rocketed to $12 a barrel (cheap it seems but this was a 400% increase than) and it seemed Ireland with its new terms was in for a windfall, but the oil companies were not so easily beaten. In his own words to Primetime in 2001 Keating had brought in the legislation because “I remember being terrified because I thought they [the companies] held all the cards” (CPI report, the great Corrib gas controversy, 55). This was quite understandable as the oil companies had just formed the Irish off shore operators group (later to become association) to lobby in their interests.

Fianna Fail take over

Before Keating could push forward with his ideas and set up a state oil company the so called national coalition was voted out in 1977 and the boys were back in town, that is Fianna Fail were in government again. Jack Lynch was Taoiseach and Dessie O Malley (later founder of the Progressive Democrats) became minister for Industry and Commerce. Ironically O’Malley’s main act in relation to natural resources was to set up the Irish national petroleum company- a State oil company. The company’s articles of association are interesting as they limit the company from exploring or exploiting oil or gas. (The INPC was later privatised and bought by Conocco-Phillips.)

Although this may seem insignificant, O’Malley by preventing the company from exploring or exploiting, severely limited Keating’s original idea; by setting up the INPC it almost made certain the Irish State would never have a National oil company along the lines of Statoil. It seems O’Malley free market ideology was very influential in this move.

Indeed the very idea of setting a national oil company didn’t sit well with O’Malley and he later said to the Dail the only he reason he did so was because Iraq would only sell oil to a State oil company (CPI report, the great Corrib gas controversy, 13).

Throughout the 1980’s the Irish state had little idea of what was the results of the exploration in Irish waters were as there were no independent tests carried out. The oil companies continued to say that finds were minimal. By the mid 1980’s 96 oil gas wells had been drilled and amazingly knowing what we know now about what lies off the west coast little was found. The oil companies moved into action and started to push that the terms instituted in 1973 be altered so they were more favourable toward the companies.

Dick Spring's true colours
In 1985 Dick Spring as minister for Energy in Garret Fitzgerald’s coalition government began to cede ground to the oil companies. He granted special terms to fields that were under 75million barrels. This included a reduced royalty rate and a sliding scale for state participation rights. In 1986 Spring removed all state participation rights on what were termed marginal fields.

Enter Fianna Fail stage right
By 1987 the government had nominally changed. Fianna Fail were back at the helm. Charles Haughey had entered his third term as Taoiseach of a country plunging further and further into crisis. Ray Burke was made Minister for Energy.

The oil companies through their Irish Offshore Operators Association were seriously lobbying for change arguing that the Irish terms were too harsh. Burke acquiesced and started to dismantle the basis of Keating’s ideas. He allowed the companies to write 100% of tax off against all exploration and construction costs over the past 25 years.

Even Ray Burke felt it would be over generous to reduce the 50% corporation tax (something Bertie Ahern would disagree with 5 years later, see below) so it remained. This was a good start for the oil companies as all costs of exploration were effectively transferred onto the people of Ireland as the companies were paying less tax on something that belonged to the people of the country. The reasons stated by Bertie Ahern (then Finance minister was to improve Ireland’s “competitive position in attracting oil and gas exploration” (CPI report, the great Corrib gas controversy, 13. Ahern went on to express concern for the “intense pressure on oil companies' exploration budgets” on the 22nd of October 1987 in reference to the new terms (www.oireachtas-debates.gov.ie) Seamus Brannan articulated the state’s position well:
“In the area of oil exploration, it is quite clear that it is too muddled, too complex, too protective, too timid, too cautious and, in effect, useless, because courage is not being taken in one's hands with the idea of getting the oil, the gas, out of the ground, and improving the intensity of the search” Dail Eireann 28th of June 1985 www.oireachtas-debates.gov.ie).

It is clear that by the mid eighties the government wanted more exploration and hoped success rates would then increase. To do this the costs of exploration were written off against tax. It appears the logic was if we drill more holes something would eventually be found. This is clear from Burke and Ahern’s statements.

Effects of the change in terms

Amazingly, after 1987 success rates rocketed by 99%. This was really odd as actual exploration rate fell by 41%. The formula worked but in a very illogical way. Something wasn’t right. This rate is obviously unbelievable and wasn’t just co-incidence. After drilling for years and finding nothing suddenly the companies struck gold at a time when they cut back on exploration. The most plausible reason is that the oil companies were sitting on information and waiting for the better terms to come along and from 1987 the government was beginning to answer their prayers. When these new and disimproved terms were brought in to legislation by Burke they then selectively drilled in places they knew they would be successful.

Things manage to get worse!
In 1992 Bertie Ahern (current Taoiseach) was the Minister for Finance. Ahern totally dismantled the 1975 terms introduced by Keating. There was to be no state involvement and royalties were abolished. In the 1992 terms, gas and oil were to be sold to the highest bidder (whereas at Kinsale they were sold at a reduced rate to Bord Gais). Licensing agreements were extended from three to sixteen years. At this point Ahern disagreed with Burke as he reduced to the corporation tax to 25%. He had widespread support for these measures. His Taoiseach of the time, Albert Reynolds, bemoaned the fact that there was not “a clear recognition by the Government that risks must be rewarded and enterprise encouraged in relation to the oil and gas industry”. (Dail Eireann 30th October 1985, www.oireachtas-debates.gov.ie)

This created what are widely felt as the best conditions for oil companies in the world, but that in effect means the worst terms for people of Ireland. This is astounding as the finds had dramatically increased since Burkes 1987 deal.

Who is to blame?
The point of this article is not to let the politicians off the hook but rather to point out that it wasn’t just one bad egg or corrupt party who got us in this dire situation. It is highly unlikely that Dick Spring or Dessie O Malley were corrupt. Rather they followed the rules of capitalism – they facilitated those trying to accrue capital. Neither is it written to lump all the blame Shell totally. As one Shell to Sea campaigner commented on the Shell/ Corrib scenario“if you put a lion in a cage with a sheep you can’t give out to the lion when it tries to eat the sheep”.

What the terms throughout the years seem to indicate is that the much used analysis of blaming corrupt politicians is wrong. To say no corruption was involved may be excessive but it seems unlikely that it wasn’t the prime factor. There are three possibly more influential reasons as to why the people of Ireland now find themselves with their in resources in the hands of multinational corporations.

The first is right wing ideology is and has been hegemonic over the Irish political spectrum. Keating seems to have been one of the few in favour of a State oil company. Dessie O’Malley was fervently against it and effectively stopped any future moves by establishing a very limited oil company the INPC. Future moves to maintain the resources oil Ireland for the people of Ireland were absent. The political will to do so didn’t exist in any of the main political parties. It was Labour through the auspices of Dick Spring got the ball rolling on the issue in 1985.

The second reason seems to have been a genuine fear of the oil companies. This seems to have been real and if we look at Keating’s comments to primetime (cited above) there was a genuine fear that the companies would leave altogether. Strangely at the time no one seems to have asked the question “what were they contributing”? Courage seems to have been lacking, but also while Keating may have had some progressive ideas he was in a coalition with Fine Gael and the idea of standing up to international capital which is what was needed would obviously be horrifying. Politics for public interest in Ireland is treated like a nice idea but not something politicians are really interested in.

The third and possibly most important reason was we had no control over our national resources. We were and are looking from crumbs off our own table. This was fuelled by the fear of the companies and international capital by the few in favour of nationalisation even in a limited whilst there was a willingness to support private capital by the vast majority . They held all the cards and the politicians would not or more accurately did not want to stand up and tell them to pay up or get out. Unfortunately they stayed and now we must fight them for fields about to go into production.

The fourth and final reason supplements the first two is that the state was not carrying out any independent test the drilling by the multinationals. This then led the state to be in a position that all its information was coming from oil companies. It was obviously in the oil multinationals’ interest to down play what they found and in fact Dick Spring’s terms (introduced in 1985) must have only encouraged it where the smaller the field, the better terms the companies received .

What we can see is that the Irish state allowed itself to be hoodwinked. This situation must have been obvious to successive energy and finance ministers since 1988 at the latest. Since then as free market ideology dominates there was no political will to challenge it.

The blame for this situation lies with the entire political establishment and system. All the major parties have been in power (except Sinn Fein and The Socialist Party and the Greens) since 1988. They facilitated this as they allowed it to continue. The past politicians allowed themselves to be hoodwinked in some cases (did they honestly think they could believe be the likes of Shell, Marathon and Exxon?), as it appears they didn’t have the will to rock the boat. They sold our resources in some cases for ideological reasons. The current politicians are possibly more to blame. They are aware of exactly what happened. They can see the unbelievable surge in productivity in exploration in 1987. They are probably muted by the fact that very prominent politicians took bribes at some point or were facilitated or thanked for introducing legislation. Why Bertie Ahern introduced more favourable legislation in 1992 is quite strange.

The nominal parties of the left, Labour and the Greens are equally compliant. Pat Rabitte is desperate to prove to big business that Labour can be trusted with the economy of the rich so will never challenge Exxon or Shell even to the extent Justin Keating was willing to. The Greens still have to state their policy which means they’ll blow with the wind and in Ireland it’s blustering right towards continued privatisation.

The future

However this is changing rapidly. The Corrib Field is between 6-11TCF (trillion cubic feet the equivalent of well 1.4 billion barrels of oil). In the average scenario the field is worth in the region of €50 - €60billion. The Dunquin field is probably worth at least around €400 billion. Opposition has a very limited time to rectify the legalised theft of our resources. Exxon and Providence will attempt to pump the gas and oil in Dunquin in the next ten years, Shell will pump Corrib once they realise an inland refinery is not a runner. In thirty years they will potentially have pumped 500 billion euros out of the country. And there are other potentially valuable fields off Donegal, Wexford and in Cavan/Leitrim. The question for the next twenty years is whether the people of Ireland will act or do our usual moaning when it’s too late to act.

Note on Sources
All the figures cited are from the Dail website, the Irish times website based on Providence figures and providences own website.

On the the Dunquin prospect the figures fluctuate drastically. A Dail debate of 4 may 2006 cites there being 25TCF of gas and only 4 million barrels of oil ( the 4 million barrels seems highly unlikely as such a small amount would not be at all profitable to extract and must be an error), the Irish times of the Thursday, May 18, 2006 cited Providence as saying that Dunquin has the potential to produce 160 million barrels of oil and 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas.


More information : http://www.dublinshelltosea.com
Follow the struggle as it develops at http://twitter.com/wsmireland
Previous articles from this author on the struggle against Shell http://anarchism.pageabode.com/cat/rossport


first published on indymedia.ie