When the men from Shannon LNG knocked on her door and asked to explain their mission, Teresa Parkinson welcomed them in.
aising three sons in a part of the country bypassed by the Celtic Tiger, she and her husband, Norman, were eager to hear from anyone who promised jobs. Shannon LNG was promising to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in the locality.
“Paddy Power and a couple of other people from Shannon LNG came to our door, sat round our table and said this is what they were going to do and we said, ‘That’s fantastic,’ because it would be lovely for our boys to have local work,” she recalls.
Eighteen years later, she’s still waiting, but she hasn’t given up hope or her support for the project.
Her boys are grown up now, two working in Ireland and one in New Zealand, but she says all three want to return to their north Kerry roots.
“There are so many families around here who want the LNG,” she says.
“My sister and brother-in-law have eight children and there isn’t one at home working.
“We FaceTime our son in New Zealand. We haven’t seen him in three years. He says, ‘Mum, tell me the day LNG starts and I’m home.’”
In the 18 years since she began hoping, however, Shannon LNG has produced little more than controversy.
At its core is a proposal to build a terminal in the Shannon Estuary between Tarbert and Ballylongford to receive shipments of LNG from gas fields in the US and elsewhere.
The estuary already has heavy industries, the oil-burning Tarbert power station is nearby and the Moneypoint coal-burning power station is on the opposite bank, so LNG infrastructure would not look out of place.
But LNG, or liquefied natural gas, is another fossil fuel that must be phased out to reduce greenhouse emissions and slow climate change, not, opponents argue, be invigorated by further heavy investment.
Much of it is extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method banned in Ireland because of the environmental damage it causes and the effects on health from the chemicals and stray gases it releases.
Pressurised, the gas becomes liquid, which is transported in ships similar to oil tankers. It must be turned back into gas before it can be burned to produce electricity or heat, so the Shannon terminal would also need a regasification plant.
The fracking and regasification elements of the project caused alarm when it first sought planning permission in 2007.
Campaign group Safety Before LNG formed and it has continued to oppose the project ever since. “We were focused on one aspect of it, which was safety.
“All we could think was, ‘If it blows up, it’ll kill everybody for three miles around,’” says group spokesman John McElligott.
“But then a whole set of issues came up — the effect on other development in the estuary, the environmental impact, the climate impact, human rights. Every single thing we looked at was wrong.”
Despite the objections, the project received planning permission in 2008 but it stalled due to legal wrangles over development fees and the financial uncertainties created by the global recession.
In 2017, the plan was reactivated, prompting a series of legal challenges led by Friends of the Irish Environment, which culminated in a 2020 High Court ruling quashing permission for the development.
By then, the current coalition was in place with a Green Party-influenced Programme for Government that stated: “As Ireland moves towards carbon neutrality, we do not believe that it makes sense to develop LNG gas import terminals importing fracked gas.”
That position was reinforced in May last year in a formal Government policy statement.
It said: “Pending the outcome of a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland’s electricity and natural gas systems being carried out, it would not be appropriate for the development of any LNG terminals in Ireland to be permitted or proceeded with.”
By then, US-headquartered multinational New Fortress Energy had bought Shannon LNG. Undeterred by official policy, it submitted a fresh planning application just three months after the Government had declared its opposition.
The project was rebranded the Shannon Technology & Energy Park, incorporating the LNG terminal and regasification plant, but also an on-site gas-burning power plant and battery-storage facility.
New Fortress said the plant would be convertible to a green hydrogen facility in future.
The conversion to a green hydrogen facility would be subject to separate planning approval at a future date and, more importantly, the development of large-scale production of commercially viable green hydrogen, which is believed to be 20 years away.
Future plans for a data-centre complex comprising eight data halls are included in the long-term plans but they, too, would be subject to a separate planning application.
As the project is classified as strategic infrastructure of national significance, it is An Bord Pleanála that decides its fate.
A decision on the LNG terminal, regasification plant and power plant was due last March but did not materialise. September 9 is now the given date, but no white smoke is expected then either.
An Bord Pleanála recently requested substantial additional information from New Fortress, which will take time to assess.
Then there is also the question of the Government’s energy security review, which is also due at the end of next month. An Bord Pleanála is obliged to have regard to Government policy in making its decisions and it could not show it had done so while the review is outstanding.
The fact that a review is happening, however, is highlighted by New Fortress in its publicity materials.
The company believes it will conclude that Ireland needs new energy supply lines, making LNG an obvious choice.
Neither New Fortress nor Shannon LNG replied to questions this week, but it is fair to speculate that the twin crises in energy supply and price that have erupted in the last few months have increased the companies’ confidence.
Paddy Power, who began the process almost 20 years ago, is no longer involved in the daily operations of Shannon LNG, but he remains a company director and agreed to consider giving an interview at some future stage.
In a brief phone conversation, he referred to his time working on the now-depleted Kinsale Gas Field.
“Developing Kinsale allowed the Government at the time to abandon the idea of nuclear power,” he said. “It provided a secure source of energy for 40 years. Everything I’ve done has been about energy security.”
But while Shannon LNG is framed as an energy security issue, it could pose a threat to the security of the coalition.
Climate and Energy Minister Eamon Ryan remains opposed to it and made a submission to An Bord Pleanála to that effect, but Tánaiste Leo Varadkar does not appear to be so committed to the official Government policy.
He told the Dáil in February that if planning permission was granted, the Government would not block the development.
He recently met representatives of New Fortress Energy, believed to include the company’s billionaire owner, Wes Edens, though his spokesperson refused to give details.
Safety Before LNG has lodged a complaint with the Standards in Public Office Commission, arguing the meeting was inappropriate.
In a statement, Varadkar’s spokesperson said: “The Tánaiste met with the company to hear about their plans for Tarbert and how they might fit in with our energy security and climate objectives, if at all.
“As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Tánaiste regularly meets with companies considering investing in Ireland.”
Varadkar recently told party members LNG would help with energy security, although ideally it would be from non-fracked sources.
New Fortress has said it would only bring non-fracked gas to Ireland but commentators say that’s almost impossible to guarantee.
In fact, supporters and opponents of the project both concede fracked gas probably already comes into Ireland via the mixed sources that feed the UK-Ireland pipelines.
Several other coalition ministers, TDs and an MEP echo Varadkar’s view, including Patrick O’Donovan, Niall Collins, Brendan Griffin, Sean Kelly and David Stanton.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, meanwhile, has said LNG will have to be considered as part of the energy security review.
But can LNG be equated with energy security?
The crisis of spiralling energy costs is due largely to the war in Ukraine and resulting strain on international gas supplies.
LNG offers little buffer against that. Its price has soared just like the piped gas from Russia. As Shannon LNG is private, there is no reason to believe it would ever sell to Ireland at anything below global market prices.
The crisis of potential energy shortages, on the other hand, is largely due to lack of generation capacity. There is not yet enough wind and solar infrastructure to generate sufficient electricity and we don’t have enough gas-burning power plants either.
Some are old and inefficient or need downtime for maintenance. Contracts were signed for new plants but they stalled because of disputes over pricing and other issues.
Meanwhile, demand for electricity is soaring, due mainly to a surge in data centres.
So even if gas were cheap, we would still lack capacity to burn it to produce electricity.
Discussing LNG in the context of energy security is unhelpful and totally at odds with our legally binding climate objectives, says Jerry Mac Evilly, head of policy at Friends of the Earth. “The effects of new fossil-fuel infrastructure, including LNG, are not benign for Ireland. They risk increasing our dependence on polluting fossil fuels,” he says.
“A terminal would also take years to be built and would likely be with us for decades to come.”
Friends of the Earth recently hosted Ray Kemble from a Pennsylvanian community whose water and health have been badly affected by the gas industry, which has extensive fracking operations in the state.
Kemble brought a letter on behalf of his neighbours and 69 campaign groups asking the Irish Government not to make their lives worse by facilitating Shannon LNG.
In the past few years, the links with US campaigners have been boosted by shows of support from celebrities such as actor and activist Mark Ruffalo.
Yet there is still a suspicion among environmentalists that Shannon LNG has the tacit support of the main Government parties.
It doesn’t help that the site on which the development is proposed was public land, owned and managed on behalf of the State by Shannon Commercial Properties, part of Shannon Group, which is tasked with driving economic development in the region.
The sale of the 630-acre site to New Fortress was concluded last year for an undisclosed price believed to be €25m.
Only one-third of it would be used for the LNG facilities, with the rest left open for other industrial development.
So even though the initial LNG project only promises 70 long-term jobs, the prospect of associated development is hugely exciting to Noel Lynch, chairman of Ballylongford Enterprise Association.
“It will open up the whole land bank and that’s vital because there is nothing in the North Kerry-West Limerick area at the moment in the way of investment or job creation,” he says.
“It would be here for the long haul. When the technology allows, they will be able to transition the LNG terminal to hydrogen so there will be jobs in construction, jobs in LNG, jobs in hydrogen and jobs on other developments on the site. It’s just the beginning if it starts.”
John McElligott says he is all for jobs but still pinning hopes on Shannon LNG to provide them after 20 years reeks of official neglect.
The Programme for Government promised to set up a Shannon Estuary Economic Taskforce “to stimulate activity for those areas that were expecting economic development arising from new fossil-fuel infrastructure”.
It had its first meeting just a few months ago.
“They’ve done no work on proposing any alternative,” McElligott says.
“They’ve put all their eggs in that one basket, so while it sounds good that they’re fighting for jobs through LNG, in actual fact they’ve done feck all.”
Teresa Parkinson is done with promises and done with rows. She just wants to see action.
“All I want on September 9 or whenever there’s a decision is a ‘yes’. Just say yes and we can get on with it. We’ve waited long enough.”