Increased precision, good science and technical rigour are essential to risk-based decision-making. But by themselves they are not enough. People's values can dominate their feelings about a level of risk.
This is especially so when they know little about the risk or lack trust in the risk-taker. Any company involved in risk-taking must, rather than dismissing such feelings as irrational, strive to understand how such beliefs are formed and adapt decision-making accordingly. Shell UK is developing strategies to try to avoid generating unnecessary public outrage. There are benefits in such an approach, but one should not underestimate the commitment required.
The dialogue we are having with the public about whether the Brent Spar platform should be dumped at sea is one example. We aim to fulfil the demands of the Best Practicable Environmental Option for decommissioning offshore structures at the same time as raising awareness of what is taking place and listening to external views. The first dialogue seminar took place in London last November. We used its findings to refine the selection criteria for contractors and to reduce their number to a manageable shortlist. We also intend to ask independent specialists to review and comment on the proposals. Only then will Shell UK recommend a solution to the problem of the Brent Spar platform to the Government for approval.
The dialogue has raised as many questions as answers. Many participants have asked that we demonstrate how both corporate ethics and wider societal values are incorporated into our decision-making. We are also debating how to combine the different elements - safety, environmental impacts and economics - required in determining the BPEO. Compliance with regulatory processes does not seem to be sufficient in itself.
Business as a whole needs a clear, transparent and stable regulatory framework within which to operate. In framing the acceptability of our business decisions and activities, we need to continue to be able to make reference to clear standards and processes that are set and enforced by independent and authoritative bodies, which retain public trust and confidence.
Angela Wilkinson is corporate issues and reputation manager, Shell UK Exploration and Production.