Brent Spar may be recycled to shield coast

Click to follow
Shell's Brent Spar oil platform could be turned into an artificial reef protecting vulnerable sections of the East Anglian coastline from erosion.

Another short-listed scheme for the disposal of the 450ftstructure, announced yesterday, is to slice it into huge steel rings and use it to support a new pier at a Teesside dockyard. Ironically, this would be used to help scrap other North Sea oil and gas installations on land.

The oil company now has a short-list of six engineering consortia with six different schemes for the disposal of the hugeNorth Sea oil installation, following a selection process which has already lasted a year.

The Brent Spar, a huge floating oil tank, has been anchored in the deep waters of a Norwegian fjord since Shell abandoned plans to dump it in the Atlantic a year and a half ago.

The company has invited the six consortia, all from the UK or mainland Europe, to draw up detailed plans and costings for a total of 11 schemes for disposing of the platform. They include turning it into dock gates, a fish farm and an onshore training centre for offshore oil workers. Three of the 11 involve bringing the 14,500-ton structure to shore and turning it into scrap.

Once the consortia have fleshed out their schemes - and Shell is giving them pounds 1.5m to do so - the company will make its choice and seek government approval for disposal around the end of this year.

In 1995 Shell obtained government permission to dump the Brent Spar in waters 7,000ft deep in the north-east Atlantic. But a dramatic "direct action" campaign by Greenpeace, coupled with a boycott of Shell petrol stations by erman and Dutch motorists and the disapproval of other European governments, forced a last-minute change of heart.

The environmentalists' argument was that deep-sea disposal set an appalling precedent and threatened serious damage to the ecosystem. Shell argued, and the Government accepted, that the small quantities of oil, toxic metals and chemicals and radioactive salts inside the Brent Spar posed no risk in the vastness of the ocean.

Yesterday, Heinz Rothermund, managing director of the Shell subsidiary which extracts British North Sea oil and gas, said disposal at sea still remained an option. It was the only option which had been studied in detail, costed and approved by ministers.

But the company was confident of finding a more popular alternative. "We are very optimistic about what we are doing ... some really exciting solutions have emerged," he said.

Shell said it would make its final choice on the basis of technical feasibility, safety for the workers involved, overall damage to the environment and public acceptability - and that choice would compete with sea dumping on all these fronts.

It made no mention of cost, although that is bound to be a consideration. Dr Rothermund said any onshore disposal was bound to be more expensive than sinking.

While Shell seems willing to spend the extra, the Government would not normally favour allowing it to do so because oil companies can claim handsome tax relief on the costs. Shell has, however, already promised it would not seek the extra tax relief if it opted for onshore disposal.