Brent Spar Affair: Two days that sealed fate of redundant rig

Nicholas Schoon and Steve Crawshaw, in Bonn, trace the timetable of decision and action that led to Shell's climbdown
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The Independent Online
Shell's long agony over the Brent Spar began with one meeting and ended with another, both in the Netherlands.

The first took place on 11 April, in the Amsterdamheadquarters of Greenpeace International. The atmosphere was tense but upbeat. A decision was rapidly made to occupy the Brent Spar, and the rest of the day was devoted to planning how to do it and win over the media, politicians and public opinion. Precisely 10 weeks later, on Tuesday this week, an equally crucial meeting took place in the headquarters of the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies, 35 miles away in the Hague.

That was when the group's four senior executives told Shell UK chief, Dr Chris Fay, that he had to back down and abandon deep sea disposal of the redundant oil storage buoy.

The first gathering, at Greenpeace International's HQ on Keizersgracht, was called at just a day's notice by Ulrich Jurgens, its chief campaigns director. International's UK based oil industry campaigner, 40-year-old Paul Horsman, had been sniffing around the Brent Spar disposal plans for months. A marine biologist who dropped out of doing a PhD, he has been campaigning for a decade.

Managers from offshore engineering companies had told him how disgruntled they were that Shell was planning on deep sea disposal, instead of the onshore decommissioning which would bring them work.

In February this year, the UK Government announced it would allow deep sea disposal. Greenpeace campaign workers in the Netherlands, Germany and Britain began plotting.

The 11 April meeting was held to decide whether to go ahead with an action involving the Spar which would capture the world's attention in the run up to the early June meeting of environment ministers from North Sea states.

There was another reason to act promptly. Greenpeace sympathisers close to Shell were warning the rig's removal was imminent. ``I've never known a meeting where the decision to go ahead with a difficult, expensive action was taken so quickly,'' said International's public relations head, Richard Titchen. ``There was a slightly unreal feel to it. No one could quite believe that Shell, with all its public relations emphasis on caring for the environment, was intent on doing this.''

About a dozen people attended from the UK, German and Dutch offices and from International. There was another follow-up meeting in Hamburg, many a telephone conference call and outpourings of E-mail. ``But by the end of that first meeting we had the skeleton of a plan in place,'' said Mr Titchen. At the end of April Greenpeace boarded the Brent Spar in the North Sea.

It was the start of an escalating, semi-chaotic campaign which followed the Brent Spar across the North Sea into the Atlantic with ships and helicopters and has cost Greenpeace over $1m, according to Mr Titchen. Greenpeace Germany, the richest affiliate of the multinational grouping, provided the biggest share of funding.

Royal Dutch/Shell's all important meeting took place in the parent company's ultra modern, headquarters. In attendance were the group's four top men, Britons John Jennings (salary pounds 564,000 a year) and Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman and managing director of Shell Transport and Trading plc, and Cor Herkstroter and Martin van den Bergh, their counterparts from the Dutch side of the parent organisations. Shell is a 40:60 UK-Dutch combine.

They usually meet once a week, but this week there was something special on the agenda - the Spar.

Also summoned were chief executives from the Shell subsidiaries in the EU countries whose governments had condemned Shell and UK ministers for going ahead with the dumping. The most important of these was New Zealander, Peter Duncan, chief executive of Shell Germany, which had seen a boycott cut sales by 50 per cent.

Dr Chris Fay, chairman of the Brent Spar's owner and operator, Shell UK, had been called to the Hague too. Shell will not say much about their discussion, but by the end of it Dr Fay had been persuaded - or ordered - to abandon the sea dumping.

The impact of the boycott and the blackening of Shell's image in North- west Europe played a leading part. But what tipped the balance was pressure from the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Ministers there had made their condemnation and their support for Greenpeace clear.

This was something quite new and extremely disheartening for the oil giant. At the end of last week it began contacts with these governments to re-explain why sea dumping was the best disposal option. By Monday night its executives realised they were getting nowhere.

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