The beached buoy

May 31, 1996

The Brent Spar oil storage buoy is still stranded in Norway after plans to dump it at sea were abandoned. And, says Anthony Rice, Shell was right but for the wrong reasons

On April 30 1995, Greenpeace activists boarded the Brent Spar, a decommissioned oil storage buoy. Its owner, Shell Expro, intended to dispose of it in some 2,300 metres of water about 240 km northwest of the Hebrides. Greenpeace argued that this would do irreparable damage to the deep-sea ecosystem, possibly even harm humans, and that it was wrong to use the ocean as a rubbish dump.

After worldwide media coverage, and widespread public protest, Shell abandoned its disposal plan on June 20 to the delight of Greenpeace and the obvious displeasure of the British Government. The Government had granted a deep-sea disposal licence on the basis of a best practicable environmental option (BPEO) study, seemingly based on flawed scientific evidence. Ministers therefore argued that Shell's capitulation flew in the face of science. In April this year, in response to the BSE/CJD scare, the Government announced a cull of British cattle that, by its own admission, had no scientific basis. What then is the role of science and scientists in these complex risk scenarios?

Having given up its initial plan, Shell towed the Spar to Norway where she still awaits a decision on her fate. In the meantime, the argument about whether or not the Spar could, or should, have been dumped in the deep Atlantic raged. The affair was surrounded by confusion and misinformation, particularly about the make-up and contents of the Spar, and about how good the arguments used in the BPEO study had been. The first point was largely settled in November 1995 when Det Norske Veritas published its independent inventory of the Spar's contents, broadly confirming the figures originally provided by Shell and correcting the erroneous Greenpeace estimates, especially of the amount of hydrocarbons present. The second point was, and is, more complex and contentious.

The BPEO and associated impact hypothesis documents were based on reports by consultants employed by Shell. They contained a number of glaring errors and were severely criticised by Scottish Association for Marine Science, scientists who probably know more than anyone else about the area chosen as the final dumping site.

The apparent disagreements between these so-called experts cast an aura of doubt on the affair, prompting Tim Eggar, energy minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, to ask the Natural Environment Research Council to set up an independent group to "examine the scientific evidence in relation to the potential environmental impacts of large offshore structures, using the Brent Spar as an example".

This group, chaired by John Shepherd, director of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, brought together expert engineers and deep-sea scientists from the UK , France and Germany. Its report, published last week, avoids expressing an opinion for or against deep-sea dumping, although it does say that the global impact of deep-sea disposal of large structures such as Brent Spar would be very small.

Among its many conclusions and recommendations two are particularly relevant. First, the group felt "I the public was not convinced that all relevant factors had been taken into account, or that the best available information had been used in reaching the decision to proceed with deep sea disposal [of Brent Spar]". Second, it went on to suggest that "I the present procedures for the granting of licenses could be improved by adopting a more open process, with provision for independent review of the scientific assessment". The group recommended that "I revised procedures should include I means to ensure that the appropriate professional advice is used I" and "mechanisms to allow consultation with outside bodies that are well informed about the environmental questions involvedI" In this context, whether or not the Brent Spar should have been dumped in the deep sea is irrelevant. The important point is that, in the latest decision, which leaves Brent Spar high and dry in Norway, science has simply been ignored. Does this matter? Yes, otherwise why bother to ask scientific questions about any human "risk" activity?

So why was science apparently ignored? The short answer is that Shell believed the potential commercial damage from following the "scientific advice" to dump at sea was far greater than the cost of reversing the decision.

But why was the public reaction, apparently in opposition to the science, so strong? The reason is surely that "science" failed to convey a clear message, whereas Greenpeace, apparently also using science as a tool, did. So should, and could, anything have been done to redress this situation, and if so, who should have done what?

There are four overlapping constituencies involved; scientists, government, environmentalists and the public, all with important responsibilities.

The first responsibility of scientists is to stay within their area of expertise, at least to the extent they are certain that they have the best available data. Failure to follow this policy was responsible for some of the problems in the Brent Spar case; it is possible that some of the errors in the BPEO study were the result of Shell's consultants operating outside their areas of expertise.

A second responsibility for scientists is the obverse of the first. If scientists have specialist knowledge, and are aware a potentially important decision may be taken on the basis of inadequate information, they should try to correct the error. If this involves going public, a third responsibility comes into play - the need to explain scientific data as clearly and unequivocally as possible. This need not involve compromising scientific integrity or playing down the inevitable uncertainties, but simply avoiding the temptation to overuse jargon and to talk down to the uninitiated.

Finally, all scientists have a responsibility to disseminate their knowledge. But the Brent Spar affair clearly exemplified that the nonscientific public, including the media, politicians and other policy-makers, is appallingly ignorant of even the most fundamental scientific facts. The reasons are complex, but scientists have to accept at least some responsibility. We must always be ready for policy decisions to be taken contrary to the scientific indications because of an emphasis on financial, political or emotional factors. But if these nonscientific factors gain sway because of ignorance of scientific arguments, we have only ourselves to blame.

Politicians constantly take complex decisions based on a range of disparate factors, science being only one among many. Science is becoming ever more specialised; no single scientist would be qualified to assess the impact of all the possible disposal options for the Brent Spar. Consequently, the choice between complex scientific options, quite apart from all the non-scientific factors, is likely to be made by someone with very little knowledge of any of them. This is probably unavoidable, and even desirable, but to enable such judgements to be made, the available data and scientific expertise must be adequate. Government is responsible for ensuring that the relevant information and expertise exist, and that they are used overtly in the decision-making.

Ensuring the existence of appropriate expertise is difficult. Government science funding is decreasing, while the emphasis on making it relevant to industry is increasing. Yet industry is rarely sufficiently far-sighted to see the potential future relevance of seemingly esoteric science. The deep sea is a classic case. Left to industry it is unlikely we would know anything about the deep oceans. The existence of scientists able to comment with authority on the possible impacts of the deep-sea disposal of the Spar was entirely due to the past history of government support for "pure" oceanography. It is government's responsibility to ensure this will be true, and not just for marine science, in 50 or 100 years time; science at this level left to industry will not be "safe in their hands".

Pressure groups have clear objectives and understandably use all the cards in their hand to further their case. But they owe it to the public, to their supporters and even to their cause to be scientifically "honest". This does not refer to Greenpeace's erroneous claim about the Brent Spar's contents; this was simply a mistake, and was readily acknowledged. Nor am I moaning at Greenpeace's failure to correct the widespread misunderstanding that the Spar was to be dumped in the North Sea rather than in the Atlantic. The "honesty" Greenpeace should show is much more subtle. For Greenpeace believes that nothing should be dumped in the oceans, deep or shallow, as a matter of principle. Accordingly it was able to dismiss the revelation of its overestimate of the hydrocarbon content as irrelevant. But the public was not convinced by the principle; rather it was swayed by a frightening diet of radioactivity, heavy metals, oil and PCBs. This is the sort of subtle dishonesty that does the environmental lobby no credit.

Whatever else it did, the Brent Spar affair showed the public that collectively it has enormous power. In exercising that power it should listen carefully to all the arguments, especially the scientific ones. The public should look for and insist on clear statements: but beware of anyone who has pat answers to the questions. Finally, they should remember that the nice guy is not necessarily right. Just occasionally, political and industrial Goliaths take the right decision, though for the wrong reasons.

Anthony Rice is head of deep sea floor biology, Southampton Oceanography Centre and a member of the Scientific Group on Decommissioning Offshore Structures. In next week's THES social psychologist Ortwin Renn writes on trends in risk analysis.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments