Rig's owners left with 14,500-ton headache

The Brent Spar affair: Greens rejoice as Shell backs down, but waters muddied over how to deal with legacy of the oil boom; THE DECISION
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Shell's decision to abandon its plan to sink the Brent Spar in the Atlantic leaves it with a huge and environmentally hazardous piece of equipment unanchored on the High Seas.

Early today, the company did not know where the oil storage buoy would be heading next.

The first priority will be to find a sheltered deep water anchorage, tow the 14,500-ton Spar there and attach a new anchor system. Shell UK chairman Dr Chris Fay said last night that there was no UK anchorage with sufficiently deep water - the Spar requires a 350 depth.

He did not know where the Spar would be heading, but it is understand that Shell will be making an urgent request to Norway to position the giant structure in a fjiord. If permission is granted, the Spar will have to be towed more than 500 miles across the North Sea from its present location, some 150 miles north-west of the Isle of Lewis. Shell UK will also begin urgent planning of a long-term disposal option for the redundant structure which will involve bringing it on shore. It will also have to reopen negotiations with the Department of Trade and Industry and other Government departments to seek permission for this method.

Yesterday the Energy Minister, Tim Eggar, said deep-sea disposal still seemed to be the best practicable environmental option and Government approval for land-based disposal would not be automatic.

It took Shell three years to study, plan and justify the deep-sea disposal plan to the Government, which granted permission in February this year. The new plans will probably not be finalised and approved until next year.

The process can be greatly accelerated but onshore disposal will be a far more expensive, complex and time consuming procedure which will create thousands of extra man hours of work. Yesterday Dr Fay stressed the extra hazards involved to workers and the environment.

Shell has said that the Spar's structure was overstressed during the operation at the end of construction in 1976. One year later two of its main oil storage tanks were ruptured in an accident, which further weakened the structure.

The worst case scenario would be for the Spa to break up while it was being towed, or while it was being turned on its side to allow it to be brought into shallow water. This would allow the toxic contaminants within its tanks, chiefly oil and metals such as copper, cadmium and zinc, to spill out and harm marine life.

"It's not going to be easy by any stroke of the imagination,'' said Dr Fay.

In 1976 the newly constructed Brent Spa was stationed in Shell's Brent Field, half way between Shetland and Norway. It acted as a giant oil tanker filling station until it was taken out of service four years ago.

Yesterday's about-turn muddies the waters for the future disposal plans for the much larger oil production platforms in the northern North Sea. Oil companies had been hoping to leave large parts of about 50 of them on the seabed.

The success of Greenpeace's campaign will force them to think again, and may make them question future investment in new platforms.