Brent Spar sets trend

August 25, 1995

Tony Rice sees dumping waste, like the Brent Spar, in the deep oceans as part of the solution to the survival equation (THES, August 11). Greenpeace, he says, is irresponsible in opposing the use of the oceans in this way. A difference of opinion about principles and values is clear, but Mr Rice takes the disturbing step of wrapping this up as a science debate.

Is it simply the case that Greenpeace has got its science wrong and Tony Rice got his right? If so, how has Mr Rice found certainty about the deep ocean where only three years ago he said it did not exist? In 1992, Dr Rice wrote in Ocean Challenge (Volume 2 p25): "A problem that has been facing deep-sea scientists for more than two decades: how to predict, or monitor, the effects of anthropogenic impact on communities of the deep sea floor . . .

"Despite the rapid improvement in our knowledge of deep-sea benthic ecology in recent years, we are unable to answer these questions with any confidence."

Yet in his THES article these uncertainties have gone: "So what do I believe would be the effect of its (the Brent Spar's) disposal in the deep sea? Greenpeace says we don't know enough about the deep ocean to answer this question. I believe that after more than a century of study we do."

No one, Mr Rice or Greenpeace, knows exactly what would happen if the Spar was dumped. Other scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, for example, are much less sanguine about the dangers than Mr Rice. They have expressed "broad agreement" with the arguments Greenpeace used to justify its action, and pointed to a series of deficiencies in Shell's scientific documents. They have pointed out that Rice's assumption that the deep seas will not be used for commercial fisheries is already incorrect in practice and that there are links in the food chain between deep water and shallow water organisms. They have also pointed to inadequacies in our knowledge of "benthic storms" and how any dumped material will be dispersed.

Shell are now faced with having to deal with a damaged structure. They know they can, having had a report from the Dutch engineering company, Smit, explaining exactly how to do it, well before their environmental assessment in support of dumping was prepared. The Spar's contents will not have to be dumped on land - they can be recycled, treated or contained as appropriate.

But something much bigger than the fate of the Brent Spar was at stake. The whole of the oil industry was watching and waiting. The Brent Spar was going to set a precedent for how other oil installations and possibly other waste could be disposed of. The real debate was about whether companies like Shell would have to take responsibility for their waste. It seems politically naive of Mr Rice to assume his doubts about the next 50 or so installations will be taken into account once the first one has been dumped. To look at the impact of the Brent Spar in isolation makes no sense, scientific or otherwise.

"Science" was abused by Shell and the Government to contain the debate and avoid the wider but crucial, long-term issues of responsibility for wastes. But in the case of the Brent Spar, environmental values won and there will be no turning back.


Director of science


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