The controversial disposal of Shell’s Brent Spar oil platform changed the relationships between companies, activists and the public for ever, say Judy Kuszewski and Yasmin Crowther

This spring marks the 15th anniversary of an event that triggered a summer of controversy, an international debate on sea dumping, an extensive consumer boycott, the reinvigoration of the NGO movement, and ultimately, a whole new way of thinking by one of the world’s largest companies. The event is known by the somewhat unlikely name of Brent Spar.

A rather unassuming floating oil storage buoy in the North Sea, the Brent Spar made headlines worldwide in 1995. The debate about what to do with it at the end of its useful life caught its co-owner and operator, Shell (then the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies), seriously off-guard. It was one of the defining moments in the modern history of corporate responsibility, the echoes of which can still be heard.

Similar in dimensions to Big Ben, Brent Spar created few waves during its 15 years of operation as a storage stop for crude oil from the nearby Brent field. This changed when a new pipeline connecting the drilling platforms directly to the mainland rendered the structure obsolete.

The disposal options were the subject of negotiations between Shell and the UK government for more than three years. The preferred solution involved towing the rig to deep water 150 miles to the west of Scotland, breaking it up with explosives and sinking it, along with the residual oil, sludges and waste products remaining in its tanks. It would have been one of the first installations in the North Sea to reach the end of its life and be decommissioned in this way.

It was the possibility that the fate of Brent Spar could establish a precedent for the deepwater disposal of many other North Sea installations that caught the eye of veteran campaigning organisation Greenpeace.

No stranger to direct action – and with a history of using “battle-ships” to stand up to whalers and oppose high-seas nuclear testing – Greenpeace activists boarded Brent Spar on April 30 1995. In inhospitable conditions, they occupied the installation for nearly a month, enduring water cannon bombardment. They attracted support from many north European countries – notably Germany and the Netherlands – as well as among opposition parties in Britain.

An unprecedented consumer boycott of Shell ensued, leading to a 20% drop in sales in Germany – and even the firebombing of one of its service stations near Hamburg. On June 20, in a climate of shifting political opinion and threat of escalating violence, Shell announced it was dropping the deep-sea disposal plans and would set about seeking an alternative solution.

Science, law, legitimacy and the media

Several issues stood firmly at the heart of the debate.

Scientific and technical analysis conducted from 1991 to 1993 had identified deepwater disposal as the “best practicable environmental option”. This was evaluated against strict criteria covering technical feasibility, safety, cost and environmental impacts. Shell – and the UK government – vigorously defended the plan as the environmentally safest option, arguing that the Greenpeace position was misinformed.

Greenpeace claimed the Spar was to be sunk with 5,500 tonnes of oil on board. This figure was later discredited, but not before being repeated in news outlets and causing considerable concern among parliamentarians. The final figure was eventually found to be some 10 tonnes of waste oil. Greenpeace issued an apology to Shell for its initial inaccuracy, while upholding its “in principle” opposition to dumping waste in the world’s oceans.

At the time, many independent scientists made forceful arguments for science to be clearly at the heart of environmental decision-making, and the incident certainly highlighted the challenges and complexity of doing just that. In addition there was damage to Greenpeace’s credibility through what the organisation insists is a “persistent media myth … that Greenpeace had got it wrong over the entire Brent Spar issue”.

The role of legal due process came under scrutiny when the protests emerged. The decision to scrap at sea, which would have been entirely lawful under UK law, had been taken in full consultation with the UK government and statutory consultees. And it had not been subject to protests from other European governments until the Greenpeace action began.

UK officials expressed dismay at Shell’s eleventh-hour reversal, with Michael Heseltine, then president of the board of trade, saying: “They should have kept their nerve and done what they believed was right.” Minister for energy Tim Eggar warned in the Independent newspaper that, having spent three years determining that deepwater disposal was the most desirable option, the government would not automatically issue permission for on-land disposal.

A Shell corporate statement claimed that the “strong objections” voiced by “other governments” had placed it in an “untenable position”, which raised debate around UK sovereignty in the discharge of its own laws.

The need for broader legitimacy emerged as a deciding factor, apart from the legal and scientific received wisdom. Greenpeace itself claims that “the amount of oil left on the Brent Spar was never central to the campaign”.

Dr Doug Parr, current chief scientist and policy director for Greenpeace UK, says: “Legal is not necessarily legitimate in the eyes of the population at large – there has to be justification as well as regulatory compliance.” The need for wider stakeholder engagement and buy-in was suddenly front and centre.

The role played by the media was not beyond scrutiny. Following the revelation of Greenpeace’s flawed science, questions were asked about how the media – both print and broadcast – had failed to provide balanced coverage. The charge was that they had rather too easily broadcast film footage and allegations from Greenpeace that made sensational coverage, but hindered objectivity. In the autumn of 1995, media executives at the Edinburgh International Television Festival acknowledged this shortfall.

In spite of the scientific inaccuracies, one of the strongest and longest-lasting effects of the Brent Spar summer was the elevation of Greenpeace – and, by extension, NGOs broadly – in public awareness and trust on questions of principle. This was due in no small part to the organisation’s skill in taking the issues directly to consumers, voters and leaders via the media and particularly the just-emerging internet.

Campaigning gold

At the time, Shell – like many companies – had no corporate website and no means of putting its own case directly. News reports of the day describe the company’s response as hurried, confused and contradictory in the face of sudden and forceful opposition. For better or worse, campaigning groups such as Greenpeace had found a new alchemy. By targeting corporate brands and using new media, issues could be catapulted to the international stage like never before.

Former Shell director and founder of the Amnesty International UK business group Sir Geoffrey Chandler says the NGO world came to learn some important lessons about influencing the corporate world beyond the headlines. He recalls how months after Brent Spar, Shell was the subject of further NGO and public outcry following the arrest and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government. (Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which vociferously criticised Shell activities in the Niger delta.)

The events eventually compelled a new type of engagement between NGOs and the corporate world. “Protest alone is not enough,” Chandler says. “You’ve got to engage, understand companies and argue with them about why the values of society are relevant to their business.”

Chandler says it is no good treating companies as the “axis of evil”. There is, he says, an essential mutuality of interest between companies and NGOs that neither had previously acknowledged.

Greenpeace’s Doug Parr recalls that, in the wake of Brent Spar, companies began to pay far closer attention to crisis management and to stakeholder engagement. Out of this, many corporate social responsibility and accountability practices eventually emerged.

The Spar episode forcibly brought home to Shell the fact that its brand and reputation were truly global and open to influence by outside parties. The statutory national consultation had not been sufficient and the company realised that far wider dialogue was needed to understand the values and concerns involved.

Andrew Vickers, now Shell’s vice-president for policy and external relations, was a press officer at Shell UK in 1995. He says the decision not to sink Brent Spar was “a tipping point” for Shell, NGOs and the media. “For Shell, it was about more than Brent Spar. Overplaying the legal card, underestimating the power of modern media tools and not seeing the deeper agenda are challenges that we work hard to address.”

An engagement problem

Heinz Rothermund, managing director of Shell exploration and production, said at the time of the Spar debate: “Spar is not, as so many believe, an environmental problem. Rather it will go down in history as a symbol of industry’s inability to engage with the outside world.”

Following the initial controversy, proposals were sought for reuse, recycling or disposal of the platform. Over the course of a two-year independently facilitated dialogue – with engagement events in London, Denmark, Rotterdam, Copenhagen and Hamburg – a wide range of options was refined to a shortlist.

Eventually, on January 29 1998, Shell announced a new “best practicable environmental option” – the reuse of Brent Spar to form the base of a new ferry quay at Mekjarvik in Norway, which is where it now rests.

Ultimately, the Brent Spar event contributed to a deepening of Shell’s understanding of public opinion and engagement, and prompted a review of its overall approach and commitment to sustainable development and accountability. Vickers says: “The business model of the day was shown to have serious flaws and many of the lessons remain applicable.”

Chandler calls the combined shock of Brent Spar and the later Nigeria crisis “absolutely catalytic”. He says the combination of the two made Shell chiefs take a close look at themselves. “Shell chairman Cor Herkströter confessed that the company had not kept pace with the views of society, and as a result they looked deeply at their values and how to interpret them in practice. We did see the world change, and it is not going to change back.”

In terms of the lessons learned from Brent Spar, Greenpeace’s Parr acknowledges: “Shell went through a bit of a culture shock at the time and did some opening out. There is certainly a greater culture of transparency, but in the end it’s not just about transparency, it’s also about content and substance.”

He says that once the dust had settled, Shell “reverted to type. Today, Shell is going into unconventional oils in Alberta, which will dramatically increase CO2 emissions. In the long run, it doesn’t seem they really got the environmental message at all.”

So, 15 years on, Brent Spar may have been laid to rest, but the battles and principles at stake are far from over.

Brent Spar: the milestones

June 1976
Brent Spar installed in the Brent oil field.

September 1991
Brent Spar ceases operating.

Detailed decommissioning studies carried out by Shell UK and independent organisations. Deepwater disposal identified as the best practicable environmental option (BPEO).

UK government approves deep sea disposal and notifies other European signatories to the Oslo convention for protection of the marine environment. No objections are raised and Shell announces its plans.

April 30
Greenpeace activists occupy Brent Spar, claiming it is a “toxic timebomb” that will set a precedent for dumping many more oil rigs. It says Spar contains 5,500 tonnes of oil.

May 23
Greenpeace activists removed from Brent Spar. The NGO calls for Shell boycott in Europe.

June 8-9
Fourth North Sea Conference in Denmark, where several European countries call for onshore disposal of all oil installations.

June 11
Shell begins to tow Brent Spar to the deep Atlantic disposal site.

June 20
Many governments having indicated opposition to deepwater disposal, Shell halts towing of Brent Spar as its position becomes “untenable”.

July 7
Norway grants permission to moor Spar in Erfjord as options reconsidered.

August 26
UK television executives admit to lack of objectivity and balance in coverage

September 5
Greenpeace admits inaccurate claims that Spar contains 5,500 tonnes of oil and apologies to Shell for inaccuracy.

October 18
Report commissioned from DNV confirms Shell’s original inventory of Brent Spar to be thorough.

Shell announces its BPEO as a one-off re-use solution for Brent Spar in the construction of a Norwegian ferry quay.

UK government gives its approval for the BPEO.

Cut and cleaned sections from Spar’s hull are placed on the seabed at Mekjarvik to form the base of a new quay.

Judy Kuszewski and Yasmin Crowther are UK-based corporate sustainability consultants. Crowther worked for Shell UK corporate affairs from 1992-97.

This is the second in our series of classic corporate responsibility case studies. Next month is the Bhopal disaster.

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