GAS from the controversial Corrib Gas field could be flowing into homes and businesses within three years after An Bord Pleanala yesterday gave the go-ahead for the final section of the pipeline.
Planners gave the green light to Shell E&P Ireland to construct a 5km pipeline underneath Sruwaddacon Bay, Co Mayo, that will link the field with a gas processing plant and allow production to begin.
The final approval, given 15 years after the field was discovered, gives certainty to the oil and gas industry that if more discoveries are made off Ireland then they will be brought to shore. But it also raises the prospect of communities across the State having massive oil or gas refineries on their doorstep.
About 10 billion barrels of oil, or its gas equivalent, are believed to be present in Irish territorial waters.
Several multinational companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and Statoil, are licenced to explore the Atlantic coast. At $100 a barrel, the natural resource could be worth billions to the State.
Work on the pipeline is expected to begin before the summer when Shell gets final approvals from the departments of Environment and Energy.
Several hundred construction jobs will be created, and work is expected to be completed within three years, meaning production would begin in 2013.
Shell E&P Ireland managing director Terry Nolan said the permission was "good news for Mayo and Ireland".
"We hope that An Bord Pleanala's thorough examination of our application and subsequent endorsement of it will allow people to feel their concerns have been fully addressed," he said.
"We are committed to working positively with the local community throughout the construction period and thereafter.
"Today's positive decision means the Corrib Gas Partners can focus on completing this strategically important project and delivering the gas to Ireland.
"At peak production, Corrib will supply up to 60pc of Ireland's natural gas needs and will play an important role in Ireland's energy security."
Planning inspector Martin Nolan, who chaired a 22-day public hearing last year, said the pipeline would not pose a risk to the public.
"There is good clarity and transparency available now on the site, the proposed development itself, on the impacts of the scheme, on the safety implications of the scheme," he said.
"This clarity provides confidence in the decision recommended and provides confidence that the safety of the public is fully protected and that the public will not be put at risk by the proposed development."
The project has been mired in controversy since the field was discovered in 1996. Bitter opposition from the local community led to the jailing of five local residents, dubbed the Rossport Five, in June 2005. The cost of the policing operation between August 2005 and October last year was almost €14m.
The permission is subject to 58 conditions, and appeals are not allowed unless they are taken to the High Court on a point of law. Up to €3bn will be spent developing the field. Five wells have been drilled and are ready for production, an offshore pipeline has been laid and is connected to the field, and the gas processing plant at Ballinaboy is finished.
The 4.2-metre-wide pipeline will carry high-pressure gas from the landfall at Glanagad, most of which is under the bay, before running overland to the gas processing terminal.
An €8.5m community fund, put in place by Shell over five years, will be held in trust for the community by Mayo County Council. Employers group IBEC said that completion of the pipeline would secure local jobs and investment.