Water and troubled oil

August 11, 1995

Greenpeace may have won the political battle to stop Shell sinking its oil platform, Brent Spar, at sea but it has not won the scientific debate. Ragnar Lofstedt describes how the activists were able to humble the multinational giant.

It is hard to remember an environmental controversy that has received as much attention as the proposed sinking of the Brent Spar oil storage platform jointly owned by Shell and Exxon on the North Atlantic sea bed. The sinking was an environmental "non-issue" until the platform was occupied by Greenpeace activists at the end of April - an occupation which greatly embarrassed both Shell and the British government, the former having applied for deep sea dumping following the recommendation of a three-year Pounds 1 million scientific study, the latter defending the application as "the best practicable environmental option".

Greenpeace's campaign eventually prompted the German, Danish and Swedish governments to deplore the proposed dumping. The arguments about how the Brent Spar platform should be disposed of were many, but the environmental reality of the options played little part as the controversy reached boiling point.

In early 1995 Shell asked the United Kingdom government for a licence to sink the Brent Spar in the North Atlantic. Under the guidelines of the new convention on the marine environment, the UK government notified other European countries of Shell's plan. Since none of the countries responded within the convention's 60-day deadline, the UK government issued the disposal licence.

Greenpeace's occupation of the platform was beautifully timed to coincide with a high profile environmental conference attended by the North Sea environmental ministers in Denmark in early June; it was virtually guaranteed that Brent Spar would be on the agenda. At the same time a successful boycott of Shell petrol stations, especially in Germany, was orchestrated.

As the publicity stakes rose, governments, church groups and the media entered the discussion, all on Greenpeace's side. Anna Lindh, the Swedish environmental minister, said: "The sea must not be used as a rubbish dump," while Helmut Kohl told John Major that stopping the dumping was "not the looniness of a few greens but a Europe-wide trend for the protection of our seas". Shell, on the other hand, received little backing.

The ten-day consumer boycott took its toll; cutting sales in Shell's 1,700 German petrol stations by between 10 and 20 per cent and leading to a split between Shell UK and its Dutch and German counterparts. Two petrol stations in Germany were fire-bombed and at another shots were fired. Outside the Greenpeace campaign Germans were writing letters to the Department of Trade and Industry in Britain including money to help pay for on-shore disposal and German women were sending pictures of their children to Shell UK chairman Chris Fay, urging him to stop the sinking for the benefit of future generations. In the face of this opposition and hours before the planned sinking Shell called off its plans.

It has been argued that the campaign was the most successful direct action that Greenpeace has ever taken. Yet the information Greenpeace used about the environmental impact of deep-sea disposal was far from proven, as Tony Rice shows. So why did Greenpeace win the debate? Was it because they couched the debate, not in scientific terms but in moral ones, appealing, with emotive statements, to the public's sense of the deep sea as pristine territory. And if this is the case, then should they have won?

Ragnar Lofstedt is a lecturer at the centre for environmental strategy, University of Surrey.

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