Major resists Kohl over Shell dumping

Battle of the Brent Spar: Greenpeace mobilises support across Europe as executives urge Shell to reconsider
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The Independent Online

John Major yesterday publicly rebuffed the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who is seeking to challenge the sinking of Shell's Brent Spar oil storage buoy at today's summit of the group of seven industrialised nations in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Prime Minister said as he arrived for the summit that plans to dispose of the platform had been made in accordance with international law and would go ahead.

"I am always happy to talk to Chancellor Kohl about any matter, but as far as I am aware the disposal of the Brent Spar is in accordance with international law. There are agreements about that. These agreements have been met. That is the way it's going to be disposed of."

The Brent Spar has turned into a big political issue in Germany and officials attending the summit said the Chancellor was under pressure from the Green party to raise it at the highest level. "There is no chance that this can be dropped from the discussions," a German source said.

Shell was divided last night over the sinking of Brent Spar. With Greenpeace offices in several nations, including Britain, calling for a boycott of Shell petrol stations, the Dutch subsidiary of the multinational suggested the sea dumping of the redundant structure could still be called off.

The Government has given Shell UK permission to sink the redundant Brent Spar in 6,000 feet of water 150 miles north west of the Outer Hebrides. Five European countries have protested. The 14,500-tonne structure was last night still under tow halfway between Shell's Brent oil field in the North Sea and the scuttling site in the Atlantic. Two Greenpeace vessels and a Royal Naval fisheries protection vessel are shadowing a small Shell flotilla.

When the Brent Spar arrives at the scuttling site early next week, Greenpeace activists in small, high-powered craft will try to get alongside as often as possible. They hope this will stop Shell detonating two explosive charges designed to puncture the buoyancy tanks - for fear of injuring or drowning the environmentalists. Greenpeace have chartered a boat to convey the international press to the scene.

Jan Slechte, president of Shell's Dutch subsidiary, told a television audience in the Netherlands: "Our company is built on the support of our customers and the public in general ... therefore we are prepared to restart negotiations with the British Government."

Senior managers in other European subsidiaries of Shell, including Germany, are anxious about the damage to the oil giant's image. Yesterday Shell UK said there was no question of reconsidering, then referred further queries to the London headquarters of the parent company. That office said it would produce a statement - then failed to do so. But the Department of Trade and Industry, which authorised sea disposal, said there was no question of reconsidering the issue.

Meanwhile, the Court of Session in Edinburgh gave its Messengers-in-Arms powers to arrest Jonathan Castle, a leading Greenpeace activist, for contempt of court. He led its three-week occupation of the Brent Spar and is now captaining the Altair - a chartered vessel pursuing the Shell flotilla. The judge, Lord Johnston, said Mr Castle appeared to have made a ''blatant attempt'' to defy the court's authority when he failed to respond to an earlier order, requested by Shell, to give the names of activists who had been on the Brent Spar. Mr Castle had been ordered to appear yesterday, but has told journalists that resisting the dumping was more important.

Leading article, page 18

The 'Independent' invited the two sides to put their cases. This is what they said


In the beginning was the promise and the promise was that when the North Sea oil fields became redundant, all platforms, structures and pipelines would be removed and the sea would be returned to its pre-exploration condition. Yet this proved to be an empty promise. The first redundant oil installation is the Brent Spar and Shell has opted for the cheapest possible option, that of dumping it into the sea, with the Government's blessing.

Even a two-year-old child is told to clean up his or her own mess. Yet, somehow, Shell is exempted from practices everyone else accepts.

How can people be expected to take this government seriously when it mouths pious words about making the polluter pay? Shell wants to dump its responsibility as much as it wants to dump the Brent Spar itself.

The Brent Spar is filled with more than 100 tonnes of toxic sludge and more than 30 tonnes of radioactive scale. It contains lead, arsenic, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenols, which, under international treaty, must not be dumped.

The decision to release these toxic chemicals has been made, and sustained, in the face of fierce public and international pressure. People across the world are horrified by Shell's decision to dump and the callous indifference displayed by the Government. Neighbouring North Sea governments have roundly condemned the UK's decision to dump the Brent Spar, as has the European Union's Environment Commissioner.

We now know that the go-ahead for dumping was given in the absence of relevant information. A leaked report has shown that land-disposal would be possible at approximately pounds 24m less than the estimate given by Shell.

News has just been made available from a former Shell worker that there are unspecified quantities of chemicals "concreted into the structure of the Brent Spar" which have not been included in any of the environmental reports prepared by the company.

Shell's operations scale the globe. It attempts to paint a picture of itself as a company which cares about the environment. Shell UK makes a mockery of these attempts by pursuing its dumping option at all costs.


Claims being made by Greenpeace in their campaign against the Government-approved disposal plan for the Brent Spar oil storage and loading buoy are alarmist and incorrect.

The decision to dispose of the Spar in the deep Atlantic follows painstaking analysis of the options, responsible balancing of all environmental, safety, health and economic factors, and extensive consultations with interested parties, including fishermen and environmentalists.

The exceptional choice of deepwater disposal was made because numerous studies have shown that while there would be no environmental benefit in onshore disposal, safety and occupational health risks would be six times greater. In terms of overall energy and resource savings, for example, there would be no significant benefit in recycling metal from the Spar but the very low radioactivity scale in the Spar could be dangerous if allowed to dry to form dust which might be inhaled during scrapping on land.

Recent allegations that a report by Smit Engineering shows the Spar could have been "scrapped on land for pounds 10m" are untrue. The Smit report, completed in August 1992, was a very early feasibility study covering only the single act of demolition and identified many areas - environmental, safety, engineering and the structural integrity of the Spar itself - which needed further investigation. This subsequent work entailed higher costs.

The Smit work was incorporated into later studies, including a major engineering analysis by McDermott Engineering. These demonstrated that onshore disposal would cost pounds 46m.

A comprehensive inventory of the contents of the Spar was established ... To the last light bulb all removable sources of contamination have now been recovered from the Spar before disposal 150 miles from land in the Atlantic at a depth of around 1.5 miles. Independent oceanologists have confirmed there is little marine life at such depth and any contamination to the sea bed would be negligible, very localised, and inaccessible to the food chain.

. . . Future disposals will be decided case-by-case in the same rigorous way, and onshore recovery is generally foreseen - and already practised.