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Brent Spar Revisited, 10 Years On

Thomas Mösch (jen)June 20, 2005

In 1995, Greenpeace stood up against Shell Oil, which wanted to sink an obsolete oil platform in the North Sea. The oil concern relented, but the standoff changed Greenpeace, Shell and the North Sea.

North Sea: no longer a junkyard for floating oil platforms like this oneImage: AP

In the spring of 1995, the Shell oil exploration company and Greenpeace were in the midst of a standoff. Shell announced it would sink the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea, and Greenpeace activists occupied the platform for a full two weeks in protest.

The media and politicians were drawn to the issue. Helmut Kohl, Germany's chancellor at the time, came out opposed to the company's plan. A widespread call to boycott Shell gas stations in Germany overrode party lines.

Winning the standoff

On June 20, 1995, Shell said it would dispose of the Brent Spar on land. But although it took place 10 years ago, the standoff is still fresh in the minds of many who were involved.

Öl im Niger Delta Nigeria
A Shell worker in an offshore oil platform in the Niger DeltaImage: AP

Karsten Smid of Greenpeace Germany remembers the joy he and his colleagues felt when they realized their protests had been successful. He sees the campaign as a great victory for environmentalists, even if it was only the first battle won in the larger war.

"The real success came three years later, when the OSPAR conference (a meeting of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) passed a general ban against sinking oil platforms. No oil platforms have been sunk in the North Sea since 1995. Today it is clear that all obsolete platforms are disposed of on land. So actually, the big success took place in 1998," Smid said.

Since then, a whole new business has sprung up specialized in recycling oil platforms, Smid noted happily.

Lessons learned

However, Greenpeace warns, the North Sea remains at risk beyond sunken oil platforms. Simply by carrying out its normal production, the oil industry removes 14,000 tons of petroleum each year from this part of the Atlantic.

At the same time as the environmental group celebrates a historic victory, the event led to a widespread questioning of Greenpeace's credibility. Shortly before Shell gave in, Greenpeace admitted it had estimated the amount of poisonous oil residues in the platform as being much too high. And the group's believability -- its stock in trade -- took a big hit with the public, Schmid said. This led to some changes for Greenpeace.

Bohrinsel Troll in der Nordsee
A Norwegian petrolium drilling platform, "Troll"Image: AP

"After that, we formed a research department, to test whether the information that we publicized was correct," said Smid. "Measurements have to be made by two independent laboratories, before the information is made public. In that way, we very much improved our quality control."

Shell, too, learned some lessons from the Brent Spar debacle. Rainer Winzenried, spokesman for Shell in Germany, said the company learned that sometimes thing that are legal are not necessarily acceptable to the public.

"Since then, we have learned to bring new projects into the public sphere for discussion, so we can take public concerns into consideration during the planning phases. We do this via so-called "shareholder forums," said Winzenried. From the Brent Spar debate, the company also learned to take debates to an international level, even if its individual actions take place within one nation's borders, Winzenried said.

Shell's PR problems

Shortly after the Brent Spar debacle, Shell faced another international debate: over the company's actions in Nigeria. In November 1995, the military regime that was then in power in the west African nation executed nine civil rights activists, including novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had denounced the environmental damage the oil industry had wrought on their homeland. Shell's image took yet another knock.

Today, Winzenried said, Shell has reduced the burning off of excess petrol that is part of the exploration process. Also, the company has changed its relationship to the people who live in oil-exploration regions.

Ölraffinerie in Nigeria
Oil refinery on the Niger DeltaImage: AP

"We no longer -- to put it rudely -- just give communities money in the hope they will stay quiet and leave us alone. We work with non-governmental agencies to create put lasting development programs into effect."

Greenpeace and Nigerian environmental and civil rights groups counter that even 10 years later, little has changed in the Niger Delta. What Shell hopes to sell as its new policy is above all cosmetic, Greenpeace's Smid said.

Next stop: Russia?

The company abuses nature not only in Africa, but elsewhere as well, said Smid. Greenpeace and Shell's latest battle is over an oil exploration project near Sachalin Island, off the Russian coast in the northern Pacific. Shell is endangering the feeding grounds of a rare species of grey whale, Smid said.

For its part, Shell points to its plans to carry out the project in cooperation with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in its defense.