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Big oil, small village... The man from Shell

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COMPLEX: Michael Crothers has been 28 years with Shell. Photo : Keith Heneghan

COMPLEX: Michael Crothers has been 28 years with Shell. Photo : Keith Heneghan

COMPLEX: Michael Crothers has been 28 years with Shell. Photo : Keith Heneghan

Canadian Michael Crothers is managing director at Shell Ireland and a veteran at the petroleum company, where he has worked for 28 years. He took over reigns in Ireland in 2011.

How does Shell's experience in Corrib compare to its drilling work in other parts of the world?

"It has been very challenging. If you look at the situation, we largely created it for ourselves at the beginning when we first came in to work in Erris.

"We just didn't spend enough time understanding the sentiment on the ground and the concerns of the community. We were quite schedule-driven and sort of engineering-minded in those days. It was, look, here's a project we have just bought from another company, they told us it was well-advanced, and I think the view from Shell was let's just continue and bring it to conclusion, rather than bring in senior people to really understand what was going on, on the ground.

"If we had, I think we would have approached it differently and hired more local people - which we eventually did, community liason officers who are from the locality, who know the local families and know the issues. Building those relationships was what we really needed to do but we didn't get into that mode until after 2007, after it all went wrong.

"So we definitely could have started out on a better foot. But through a lot of honest conversation I think we have really progressed a long way to the point where the community has tolerated and accepted to a large degree the project.

"We can't say we have the full support of the community; there are still some people who have strongly held views that don't accept it. But if you look at the broad sentiment and the support that we are getting from a wide spectrum of Erris, we have come a long way."

"When people also see the huge economic impact that the project has had here… they really do appreciate the jobs. In fact, over half of our workforce of 1,000 are from Mayo, and even more importantly we have a huge amount of people from Kilcomman, from the parish itself. That's not just in the construction phase, it is also in the post phase. So we hired local people to be part of our operations and maintenance long-term."

Has Shell's experience at Corrib deterred other mining companies from exploring in Ireland?

"I think that is a complex question. When you look at attracting business to the off-shore industry, you have to look at a whole variety of issues, particularly risk and what we call prospectivity - so what is the likelihood of actually finding something?

"In Ireland there has only been four commercial finds out of about 160 wells over the years. So this is a high-risk area. The western Atlantic, secondly, is the most rugged, difficult part of the ocean to work in - much more aggressive than the North Sea.

"Yes, is there some concern about the time it has taken Corrib to progress, about some of the complexity in the regulations - which is being worked through, but is still fairly complex compared to other jurisdictions.

"But I still think the underlying decision is about risk and whether you are going to find something. One well costs about €150m. So it's a big gamble."

Is Shell looking for oil or gas elsewhere in Ireland?

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This field is required

"At this point, no. But we are doing a near-field exploration review." [This means Shell is co-sponsoring exploration work south and west of the Corrib field alongside the Government].

"We are going to have a look and see if anything looks interesting but then we will have to weigh it up against our global portfolio. And to be honest, I'm not that optimistic that it would float up to the top. Ireland has to compete in terms of risk and opportunity with the world.

Do you like your job?

"I do. The job is really interesting. The project in terms of scale, from a capital perspective, is smaller than I have worked on before. I've worked in global jobs with responsibilities for 30 or 40 countries, in the Far East, in Europe, South and North America, parts of Africa. I have had a lot of global experience. But Corrib is very complex and requires a huge amount of communication with the community, with stakeholders, with regulators - that part of it is complex.

"It is an enjoyable place to work. People are very hospitable, they have welcomed me. My family comes from Co Down and as a child I was back and forth between here and Canada… it's a bit like a second home. It is really gratifying to get feedback from the community that we are on the right track and I am really grateful for the tolerance from the community over all these long years of construction.

"We are finally at the point where it is going to run - it is going to be great for the country, and for the county too."


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