Is Shell going up in smoke?

In Germany, fury at Shell's proposed sinking of the Brent Spar oil rig threatens not only the company's profits but also its workers' lives. Steve Crawshaw reports
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The Independent Online
"Idon't agree with what's happening in the North Sea. It's a bad business. We have to be careful about how we dispose of every drop of oil - and then they do something like this. Why? It shouldn't be allowed." Rainer Gussgen clearly sympathises with the calls for a boycott of Shell. Nothing surprising about that, perhaps - except for the fact that Mr Gussgen himself runs a Shell filling station, and is a direct victim of the national boycott that has swept Germany. "As a consumer, I might take part. It's like my daughter said to me: 'I think it's great that the boycott has been organised - it's just a pity that you're affected.' "

Anger against Shell in connection with the proposed sinking of the Brent Spar oil platform is far greater in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. In Britain, public protest against Shell is still low key. UK newspapers and broadcasters are giving the Brent Spar enormous attention, but they also allow Shell and the Government to put over their arguments for deep sea disposal - that the environmental impact will be small and that it is the best option, taking cost, human safety and all-round environmental threats into account.

In Germany, however, where there is little of this ambiguity, there has been violent protest in addition to peaceful boycott. In the worst incident so far, protesters set fire to a filling station in Hamburg, after scrawling "Shell to Hell" on the walls. The sales area was completely destroyed. Two days earlier, bullets were fired from a passing car at a filling station near Frankfurt. Over the weekend, there were several smaller incidents, including a Molotov cocktail that failed to explode. The violent attacks have been widely condemned, not least by Greenpeace itself. Nonetheless, they can be seen as the violent tip of a more peaceful iceberg. Shell Germany has been deluged with protest letters and phone calls - 2,000, on Friday alone.

Leaders of all the main political parties have condemned the company - and, by extension, the British government, which gave the go-ahead for the sinking - in more or less unanimous terms, proclaiming: "The sea is not a rubbish bin." Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted on raising the subject with John Major at the G7 economic summit in Halifax at the weekend.

The subject has regularly dominated Germany's front pages, usually with an unquestioned assumption that Shell and Britain are the self-evident villains. The Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, wrote a signed editorial in the biggest-selling daily, Bild: "Germany spends a lot on protecting the North Sea. But other states must also fulfil their obligations." Or, as one reader's letter suggested: "Throw Britain out of the EU!" Yesterday, Bild carried yet another anti-Shell editorial, which argued: "The Shell bosses have lost all sense of what we all think, believe and feel. People know that they can buy good petrol elsewhere."

Certainly, calls for action against Shell have fallen on fertile ground: opinion polls suggest that four in five Germans support the boycott - which is, of course, more or less painless for the motorist to enforce. At midday yesterday there was barely a trickle of customers at Mr Gussgen's filling station, on a busy road leading out of Bonn on to the autobahn.

Even those who did fill up were keen to offer an apologetic or defiant explanation. Sven, a heating engineer, said that he was so low on petrol that he did not have enough to get him to the next filling station, "Otherwise I wouldn't fill up here - no way". Georg, who works for a flower shop, was anguished. "We have a Shell card, and we're not allowed to buy petrol elsewhere. But I'm sure that when the boss gets back from holiday, things will change." Markus, a house-painter, said: "I certainly wouldn't fill up at Shell, if it depended on me. It's terrible, what they're doing. It's as if, after I've painted a room, I would go down to the Rhine, and pour the rest of the paint away, saying, 'My job's finished and I'm not responsible for what happens next'. It's unbelievable."

Already, Shell acknowledges that it has suffered "drastic" losses because of the boycott, which has gained wider support than any such action before. Even the Church has joined in. A national lay conference - an annual high- point of the church calendar, with 80,000 participants - ended on Sunday with a resounding call for a boycott.

Germans are baffled by the British failure to react to the Brent Spar drama, just as Britons have been startled by the passions that have been aroused in Germany. The Green party now plays a key role in Germany, and have come to be seen as the third most important political party, after Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats and the main opposition, the Social Democrats. Germans are proud of what they believe to be their impeccable green credentials.

There is a certain amount of humbug in this. Thus, for example, a much- vaunted recycling programme is partly wasted - German consumers are so keen to do their environmental duty that the system is disastrously overloaded, and much of the the carefully "recycled" rubbish ends up in landfill. In addition, British officials note sardonically that "Germany pumps just the same sludge out of the Rhine into the North Sea, containing just the same metals as the Brent Spar. Fifty per cent of the pollution in the North Sea comes from the Rhine - which, as far as one knows, isn't a British river."

The result of the passions stirred in Germany is that Shell is in the peculiar position of seeming to disown itself. Shell Germany goes through the motions of defending its sister company in the UK: a four-page leaflet, explaining the official position, is available at German filling stations. At the same time, however, Shell Germany is keen to distance itself from Shell UK. German managers imply that they would not have got rid of the Brent Spar platform in this way. Shell Germany added to its own public relations woes when it suggested at a press conference in Hamburg that Shell UK was planning to delay the sinking - a claim that London promptly and indignantly denied.

Meanwhile, German Shell managers are privately furious that their UK colleagues failed to warn them of what was, so to speak, in the pipeline. The first that German Shell knew of the proposed sinking of the Brent Spar was when they saw it on the TV news. "We knew that this would play disastrously in Germany," said one executive. "In London, they didn't seem to understand - even when we tried to explain. They could not believe that this was such an important issue for the Germans."

Rainer Gussgen notes that each country's concerns may sometimes seem mysterious to others. "I can't understand that people in Britain haven't reacted more. Maybe, if this was about animal transports, the British would be more active. Is that right? I really don't know."