Shell backs down on Brent Spar

Government fury at Greenpeace victory
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The Independent Online
Shell last night abandoned at the eleventh-hour its plan to dump the Brent Spar rig in the Atlantic provoking a furious reaction from the Government.

While the environmental campaign group Greenpeace was claiming victory in the high-profile battle, Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, condemned Shell, saying: "They should have kept their nerve and done what they believed was right."

Referring to the Prime Minister's comments in the Commons on Monday that the best solution was dumping in deep water, Mr Heseltine added: "I think the Prime Minister has behaved in an exemplary way and he deserved better from Shell."

The company said that opposition from the governments of other European countries was responsible for its change of heart. The rig had been due to be scuttled today.

"Shell UK Limited still believes that deep-water disposal of the Brent Spar is the best practicable environmental option," it said.

Paul Horsman, the Greenpeace campaigner who initiated the campaign against the Brent Spar dumping, said: "This is a victory not only for the environment and Greenpeace but for tens of thousands of people who protested across Europe.''

Last night, Shell UK's chairman, Dr Chris Fay, said the company was ordered to climb down by its parent, the Royal Dutch-Shell Group. The group's top management was forced to abandon deep-sea disposal because European subsidiaries of Shell "find themselves in an untenable position", he said. They were losing millions of pounds worth of sales due to customer boycotts.

Dr Fay blamed governments and ministers of several North Sea states for Shell's dilemma rather than Greenpeace.

He said it was "the first example where governments have openly protested against an option which has been carried out in a lawful and proper manner".

Shell UK's statement said environmental studies supported its decision to dump the Brent Spar in deep water. The British Government had granted a permit for its disposal according to international standards, it said, but "other governments voiced strong objections".

It will now seek a licence from Britain to dispose of the loading buoy, with its remaining oily waste, on shore. But Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy, warned that the Government would not automatically issue permission for the Brent Spar to be broken up on land.

He said the Department of Trade and Industry had accepted proposals for deep-water disposal after three years of talks.

"If Shell wishes to propose an alternative course of action the Government will consider it," he said. "That proposal will have to contain solutions to the problems which led to the identification of deep-sea disposal as the best practicable environmental option."

The first priority for Shell is to identify a safe, sheltered anchorage in deep water for the floating structure which had been due to be dumped 6,000ft down on the bed of the north-east Atlantic today. It is likely Shell will ask to be allowed to shelter the Spar in the deep waters of a Norwegian fjord,

However, the Spar does not have anchor chains of the necessary length because these were blown off when the 14,500-tonne structure began what was to be its final journey 10 days ago. Dr Fay said there was no sheltered anchorage with sufficient depth of water for the Spar, which is about 108 metres long (330 ft).

"I don't know where the Spar is meant to be heading at the moment," he said. Dr Fay said he would be seeking "the support of other governments in securing the availability of a deep-water safe anchorage in the immediate future".

There are considerable risks in bringing the Spar ashore and scrapping it. It was overstressed and weakened during construction and its 15 years of operation.

Apart from ensuring the structure cannot break up during the complex process of bring it ashore, Shell will also now have to find ways of dealing with the toxic contaminants including zinc and cadmium and the low levels of radioactivity within the storage tanks on land.

Shell's last-minute about-turn puts a question mark over disposal plans for other much larger North Sea structures.