From Louisiana to Mayo: cometh the Candyman

In Ireland, as in the US, government is bending backwards to Big Oil, despite safety risks
Michael McCaughan

US Interior Minister, Ken Salazar, promised more rigorous regulation of oil and gas leasing last January after acknowledging that the petroleum industry called his office “the candy store” for its surrender to corporate energy interests. “Whatever they wanted to happen, happened”,  said Salazar. The outcome of this policy became apparent in April when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven people and sending a toxic plume into the ocean, the worst environmental catastrophe in US history. President Obama promised tighter rules for future drilling. Two weeks later, it emerged that Obama’s officials granted 27 exemptions from carrying out detailed environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill.

The candy store remains open for business.

BP’s efforts to staunch the spill have been inept. It tried to cap the spill with a 98-tonne steel box which quickly clogged with gas hydrates. “It’s working as planned”, said BP vice-president Kent Wells, a statement which made perfect sense when it emerged that the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) “routinely overruled” staff biologists and engineers who raised health and safety concerns over oil and gas projects. Scientists were also pressurised to alter the findings of their internal studies if they predicted an accident might occur. On the same night as the disaster occurred, April 20, seven BP executives were on board the rig celebrating the project’s exemplary safety record.

In the same breath as Salazar announced tighter regulations, he stated that the goal of the US review of oil and gas terms was to reduce the number of court challenges to leasing decisions and ease uncertainty for investors in drilling projects. This logic takes us directly to An Bord Pleanála last November when the board’s experts rejected the Corrib gas pipeline route due to the “unacceptable risk” it posed to health and safety. However, the same statement recommended “provisional” approval of the pipeline as “appropriate” on grounds of strategic national importance. It is these three words which appear to be pushing forward a project which would otherwise be rejected.

Irish human rights’ organisation, Frontline, recently published ‘A Breakdown in Trust’, a report commissioned to establish whether community activists in Mayo qualified as human rights defenders and if so, how best to safeguard their rights. Barrister Brian Barrington, a former adviser to the SDLP’s northern Ministers, navigated the complex web of relationships in county Mayo with admirable skill. The reaction to the report’s recommendations spoke volumes about its findings; Gardaí demanded clarification, IRMS (private security) rejected the report, Shell defended their track record, saying they applied “the highest standards” but sidestepped the substantive issues raised in the document. The Irish media, which has poured scorn on the community, ignored the report with the notable exception of Lorna Siggins at the Irish Times.
The report concluded that the Minister for Justice blocked investigations into heavy-handed Garda tactics; and recommended an independent inquiry be held into the beating of Willie Corduff (in April ‘09). The report also suggested that Gardaí who serve time on the Corrib-gas beat be rotated elsewhere and that special training be given before fresh faces are assigned there. The 95-page report demolished many of the myths associated with the campaign: Frontline found no evidence of Republican involvement beyond individual participation in events, and noted the diverse, leaderless nature of the campaign, a tribute to the collective effort underway. Barrington did one thing that most observers have failed to do – he watched many hours of footage which give context to images of protestors tussling with police. The report captures the broader context of police provocation, amply documented in over 100 written complaints to the Garda Ombudsman Commission. This issue is perhaps the single biggest factor in driving the Corrib gas campaign from the mainstream to the margins of Irish life. Frontline excludes from its remit those who use violence, recommending that “proportionate sanctions” be applied against them. The report found isolated acts of criminal damage against Shell and verbal abuse against Gardaí but concluded that such behaviour “does not characterise the overall situation”. Allegations of intimidation were greatly exaggerated, reported Barrington, involving nothing stronger than “people no longer talking to each other”.

Frontline concluded that community activists in Co Mayo are indeed human rights’ defenders and deserve the full protection of the law. Nevertheless, Pat O’Donnell remains in jail for refusing to surrender to a project regarded by technical experts and human rights observers alike as unsafe. Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan welcomed publication of the report and said his department would “take all points on board”. Minister Ryan’s learning curve is complete – he has mastered the language of the candy store.