LAST MONTH was a bad one for US giants New Fortress Energy (NFE), with An Bord Pleanála putting the kibosh on its Irish subsidiary’s plan to construct a €650m liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Shannon Estuary near Ballylongford Co Kerry. Another casualty was Ger Colleran’s Kerry’s Eye, which fell foul of press ombudsman Susan McKay over its reporting on the controversial project.
Having had its planning permission quashed by the High Court in 2020, the NFE-controlled Shannon LNG Ltd reapplied in August 2021 but the appeals board, in an 8:2 vote, threw the plan out earlier this month on the basis of the Government’s stated policy on the importation of fracked gas, which is the subject of a review to be published in the next few weeks.
The policy has caused tensions in Government, with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan leading the charge against fracked gas. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been less convinced, while also keeping a close eye on the potential for job creation, with local elections to take place next year. (Taoiseach Leo Varadkar noted the appeal board’s decision “will come as a disappointment to a lot of people in north Kerry”.)
Accounts filed by Shannon LNG show that the process has, not surprisingly, been a costly one, with accumulated losses topping €15m at the end of 2021, although the two employees scooped a combined €½m in emoluments that year. Meanwhile, NFE was owed a chunky €28m.
The issue of fracked gas is, of course, highly controversial and Kerry’s Eye found itself in hot water over its reporting earlier in the summer on claims made by NFE.
Last month, McKay came to the determination that an article published by the paper, which Colleran edits, had breached principle 1 (truth and accuracy) and principle 2 (distinguishing fact and comment) of the Press Council’s code of practice.
The complaint was made by a group called Safety Before LNG, a local campaign group that didn’t appreciate a piece in the paper about the LNG project. The members challenged what they said was an inaccurate claim that New Fortress Energy would not be using fracked gas.
Colleran was nonplussed. He argued that the report was “fair and balanced”, citing a reassurance by a NFE suit to a local councillor that the terminal “will not depend on fracked gas”.
The editor noted that the article had certainly not relied on the spin of an oil and gas company, with careful language inserted to note that any reference to fracked gas was just a claim by the US company. Kerry’s Eye’s sophisticated readers would read between the lines and certainly not presume the paper was presenting this as fact.
In any case, to clarify matters, Colleran was happy to publish a clarification of sorts.
McKay, however, was no more convinced than Safety Before LNG.
She concluded: “Kerry’s Eye has provided no evidence to support its published assertion that NFE has claimed it would not trade in fracked gas.”
The press ombudsman concluded: “The publication misses the point of the complaint. This is not about whether or not the newspaper or its readers believe what the company claims. It is about the newspaper reporting that a claim was made which was not made.
“The newspaper interprets what was written in the letter as amounting to a claim, but this is not supported by the facts.”
The letter written by the New Fortress Energy suit, she concluded, never promised that fracked gas would not be used, just that it was most unlikely. The executive “very definitely does not rule it out” (the same interpretation subsequently adopted by An Bord Pleanála).
It turns out that the confusion somehow created over the use or otherwise of fracked gas was not limited to Kerry’s Eye. An article published by the Irish Times a few months earlier was subsequently amended to remove “an inaccurate reference to New Fortress having indicated that it would only use gas supplies drilled from conventional well”.
Happily, the correction avoided any run-in with McKay.