Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Wednesday, November 25, 1998 Published at 09:51 GMT


Brent Spar's long saga

A damp occupation by Greenpeace - but the Spar was not dumped

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The Brent Spar's owners, the oil company Shell, decided to sink her at the bottom of the North Atlantic at the end of her useful life.

And there she would be today, but for the controversy stirred up by Greenpeace, which gained the support of thousands of people, and of several governments.

For 15 years the Spar, a floating structure made largely of concrete and steel, served as a crude oil storage tank and loading buoy.

She was decommissioned in 1991, and in April 1995 Greenpeace campaigners clambered aboard the Spar as she lay at anchor off Shetland.

After three months of mounting protest, and despite the support of the British government, Shell announced that it was not going to sink the Spar.

The Greenpeace occupation was only part of that protest.

Many people in Britain and elsewhere in Europe boycotted Shell products.

It was a campaign during which the company said lost it millions of dollars.

And one Shell station in Germany was firebombed. Greenpeace condemned the action.

The case for conservation

Throughout the stand-off, Greenpeace's argument was simple. We should not use the seas for dumping waste, they argued - and the Spar contained too much valuable material to be treated as waste in any case.

The Greenpeace case was a restatement of the classic conservationist approach - recover, recycle, reuse.

Shell's argument was a simple one, too. It said it would be safer and cheaper to sink the Spar in deep water than to bring it ashore, cut it up, and use its different parts in new ways.

[ image: The fate of the Spar meant a debate about principles]
The fate of the Spar meant a debate about principles
What confused things was the argument about what toxic substances the Spar contained.

Although Greenpeace quoted Shell's own estimate of the amount of toxics and chemicals on board, after they did their own sampling they said there were more than 5,000 tonnes of oil on the Spar..

In September Greenpeace realised that there was very much less oil than that. They immediately published the correction, even telephoning journalists to make sure they had received the press release giving the new figure.

But they insisted that the new amount made no difference at all to their belief that the Spar should be salvaged, not dumped.

Safe haven in a fjord

The following month, in October 1995, an independent audit by the Norwegian agency Det Norske Veritas (DNV - a marine certification body something like Lloyds of London) broadly confirmed Shell's own original estimates of the oil, toxics and chemicals on board.

After its change of mind, Shell towed the Spar to Norway and moored her in a fjord, where she has been ever since.

[ image: Calm waters to end her days]
Calm waters to end her days
The company asked for ideas on how to dispose of her in an environmentally-friendly manner, receiving hundreds of proposals.

It asked DNV to see whether the six shortlisted proposals would be environmentally better than dumping the Spar.

And DNV's report said all the proposals showed environmental advantages by comparison, including energy savings - mainly from reusing the Spar's steel.

No more Spars

In July 1998 all the governments of the north east Atlantic region agreed to ban future dumping of steel-built oil installations.

So it appears unlikely that the saga of the Spar will be played out again. But was Greenpeace right ? Should Shell have given way ?

There can be no argument with the principle that Greenpeace was trying to uphold. The idea that we should use things (and the things they are made of) time and again, and not just throw them away, is clearly right.

But dismantling structures like the Spar could be dangerous. It could cost lives.

One guiding principle for green policymakers is to search for the elusive BPEO - "the best practicable environmental option".

Sometimes it is obvious what the BPEO will prove to be. But sometimes it is far more finely balanced.

There are seldom any easy answers. And there is hardly ever an environmental free lunch.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Sci/Tech Contents

Relevant Stories

25 Nov 98 | Europe
Brent Spar gets chop

Internet Links

Shell - Brent Spar

Det Norske Veritas

Natural Environment Research Council Second Report on Decommissioning Offshore Structures


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

World's smallest transistor

Scientists join forces to study Arctic ozone

Mathematicians crack big puzzle

From Business
The growing threat of internet fraud

Who watches the pilots?

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer