John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, would not sign the UK up to a declaration that North Sea states should move towards eliminating all emissions of toxic, hazardous substances into the sea within 25 years.
Britain and Norway, the region's two big oil producers, opted out of a statement condemning the dumping of redundant offshore oil and gas installations at sea. Mr Gummer insisted the Government would not revoke Shell's permission to sink the Brent Spar oil storage buoy in the Atlantic, despite explicit condemnation by four other North Sea states.
Britain and France also refused to go along with seven other nations who wanted to apply an extra layer of controls to coastal and inland sewage works, fertilisers, animal manure and urine draining into rivers which flow into the North Sea.
Most states agreed this was essential to curb the damaging over-fertilisation of the sea. Britain and France said they would only allow themselves to opt out if they could prove their farm run-offs and sewage works were not causing a problem.
But Mr Gummer said Britain had been able to join its neighbours in signing the great majority of the conference's final, ministerial declaration. He said the gathering of nine nations and the European Commission had made important progress in addressing overfishing - which he and some green groups regard as the most important environmental issue affecting the North Sea. "Every year the fish stocks become more endangered. I really don't think we've got much time," he said.
He believes that if the conference leads to the environment ministers of North Sea states having as much clout in protecting stocks as fisheries ministers, then that will be its greatest success. During the Esbjerg meeting, Norway offered to host a joint meeting of environment and fisheries ministers before 1997.
The hope is that the conference's declaration on fishing will give fresh impetus to bringing in tougher fish conservation measures, such as decommissioning schemes for trawlers. Ministers implicitly accepted that to date the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy had failed to give stocks adequate protection.
But some environmental and conservation groups taking part in the Esbjerg negotiations were frustrated. "It is the ultimate irony that the conference solution to overfishing is another conference," Phil Rothewell, senior policy officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said.
In the final text, all of the nations - apart from Britain - agreed to continuously curb emissions of hazardous metals and chemicals "thereby moving towards the target of their cessation within 25 years".
Mr Gummer argued that since neither governments nor industry knew how to achieve this as yet, it was wrong in principle to sign up to it. "We don't even know how we would measure the levels of some of these substances," he said.
Greenpeace welcomed the move towards an all-out ban, as did Chris Tydeman, head of UK Conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature. "It's sad to see the UK making a reservation on this," he said. "As for the rest, I'm encouraged by the words - time will tell if their actions follow."
At Britain's urging, all the countries agreed they should try to find common methods of measuring inputs of the same range of toxic substances into the sea in order to compare their performance.
They failed to deliver fully on their previous undertakings to cut the most hazardous, ecologically-damaging chemicals by up to 75 per cent between 1985 and 1995.
What the ministers decided
This was the fourth major North Sea Conference; the first took place in Bremen, Germany, in 1984. The participants were environment ministers from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Commission.
The purpose of the conference was to sign a 44-page ministerial declaration. The bulk of it consists of calls for desirable actions, invitations to other international organisations to take action and statements of what North Sea nations are already doing to protect their common waters. There is fairly little which commits ministers to new actions and targets.
But they did agree to vote in the International Maritime Organisation to make the North Sea an area in which ships are forbidden to discharge almost any oily waste from cargo and bilge tanks.
They also agreed to work in the IMO to introduce, for the first time, engine exhaust emission controls on ships sailing within the North Sea, in an effort to curb pollution.
The ministers also asked the European Commission to consider by 1997 a proposal for "undisturbed areas" within the North Sea. These would be places where fishing would be banned or very strictly limited in order to monitor how stocks and the sea-bed life recovers.
The ministers also agreed to studies which could, in several years' time, lead to offshore nature reserves beyond the 12-mile territorial limit.Reuse content