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The Corrib Gas Field: Les choses sont contre nous?

Minister Noel Dempsey must have been taken aback at the implications of the reply from Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. when he asked them why they had executed work for which he had not issued a consent.

"It was a technical breach" the company was reported as saying.

Technical? What can that mean?

By all accounts the breach consisted of the shipping, delivery, assembly and welding of pipeline sections laid out over the Mayo countryside sufficient to make a high pressure gas pipeline three kilometres in length.

This must be fairly recognised as a new application of the discoveries of Pierre-Marie Ventre whose insights into technological animism were limited to inanimate objects. He expressed the widely held belief that inanimate objects harbour a spite for human beings (he used the term "men"; we are all representative of our times).

He challenged the general thrust of human thought up to that point in time: what men think of things. He focussed on what things think of men. Why, for instance, does the toast fall butter side down more frequently, where the carpet is expensive? Subsequent discoveries embrace the wisdom of concealing from photocopiers the stressed and emotional needs of the operator to avoid obstructive jams, breakdowns or even power failure just when they cannot be borne.

Now Shell E & P Ireland Ltd have taken it to a new level. For Pierre-Marie Ventre, the trouble lay with technology in the form of objects. For Shell E & P Ireland Ltd, "technical"clearly extends to systems also. After all, the assembly of a pipeline has to be arranged and managed. That can only be done systematically. Somehow the company's systems frustrated its purposes.

This has implications for the risk assessment of the pipeline that the Minister is now awaiting, Hopefully, he will reveal the terms of his request for tender for the assessment, but in the meantime it is possible to envisage that it could be of two types.

It could focus on taking as a given that all the different possible outcomes of the actions of Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. are known and then lay out the probabilities of the outcomes occurring. Those probabilities might be objective or subjective, that is, there might be widespread agreement on the probability values, or not, in which latter case they will be particular to the perception of the assessor and not shared by other observers.

Or, the assessor might, up to a point, ignore the case of Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. and review pipelines and pipeline accidents elsewhere in the past. On this approach the assessor will make a calculation of, say, the numbers of pipelines subject to failure compared with the number that are successful. If that was too crude the assessor might seek the particulars of each historical failure and compare those with the plans of Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. for its pipeline, to ascertain the possibility of a repeat in its case. Here the assessor would take account of corrosion, impact, defect in the manufacture of the pipeline both in assembly and in the factory, the particulars of the natural gas from Corrib, the terrain in Mayo, the proximity of the pipeline to residences and so on.

There are obvious difficulties with each approach. Clearly, the assessor needs to be apprised of what Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. has said about its technical breach. What was the probability of what happened to Shell E & P Ireland Ltd., happening? It must be high; it happened. So, it is possible that the probability of something going wrong is higher in the case of Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. in Mayo than might be the case elsewhere and in the past.

In all events the assessment will be difficult reading for Minister Dempsey. It is unlikely to find that the risk of failure is nil. So, the Minister will have to decide what is an acceptable risk of failure in the pipeline. This is somewhat unfair, because one way or the other, Shell E & P Ireland Ltd. made this assessment already. In its case, of course, cost benefit analysis would also have been applied. Presumably the Minister will not do this.

But the Minister is not short of time for his assessment. The laying of the seabed pipeline section on the seabed is not determinative of land based terminal and processing over sea platform processing. The latter will need a pipeline as much as the former, with this difference; the pipeline will be over engineered.

But the Minister should keep in mind the thought of one of the predecessors of Pierre-Marie Ventre , Ralph Waldo Emerson who observed:

  "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

by

 

A.L. Waller
3rd August 2005

 

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