Helicopters carrying police and Shell UK security officers were on their way to the rig for a dramatic high seas finale when an extraordinary meeting of chief executives of Shell companies throughout Europe ordered their reluctant sister company to make its last-minute U-turn.
Now the saga of the 14,600-ton disused oil platform is expected to drag on for at least a year, while the company tries to find a way of dismantling it on land, as Greenpeace demanded. Already environmentalists and fishermen are starting to protest against plans to move it to shore.
Today the Brent Spar, which has been retracing its course at a stately one mile an hour since turning away from the dump site in the North Atlantic on Tuesday, will halt "somewhere north of Shetland" while maintenance work is carried out. Shell Expro, which owns the rig, is hoping a safe haven can be found somewhere around the North Sea coasts to store it pending a final decision on what to do with it.
Shell's plan to storm the rig would almost certainly have succeeded had it been put into effect. Rose Young, one of the leaders of the activists on board the Greenpeace boat MV Solo which was shadowing the rig, admitted to the Independent on Sunday the day before the U-turn: "If Shell or the police try to remove our people who have occupied the platform, there is little we can do to stop them.
"We have succeeded in raising public consciousness about the issue of the disposal of redundant oil rigs and that is very satisfying. But it looks as though that is all we can do."
On Tuesday Shell executives dispatched two helicopters carrying four Shell security officials, two officers from Grampian police, four engineers and crew from Aberdeen with orders to evict the four activists who had occupied the rig and then to scuttle it.
The aircraft landed at Stornoway Airport in the Outer Hebrides to refuel. They were on the runway and about to fly to the Brent Spar when they were suddenly ordered to stop. They stood on the apron of the airport, engines running, amid tight security for two hours, before returning to Aberdeen with their mission unfulfilled.
The operation was called off by Dr Chris Fay, chairman of Shell UK, when he was forced to abandon his plan after a confrontation with his fellow heads of European Shell companies. The showdown took place at a meeting of the Council of Managing Directors at the Shell headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Dr Fay was confronted by leaders of Shell companies from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries affected by the growing outcry over the company's plans to sink the toxic structure.
The heads of these companies had grown increasingly restive over the previous 10 days as the protests grew, culminating in a boycott of Shell petrol stations in Germany that cost the company at least 30 per cent of its sales. Peter Duncan, chairman of German Shell, had said: "The short- term impact on the business is as serious as anything that has happened in the recordable history of this company."
Dr Fay seems to have been faced with a fait accompli. One senior Shell official said: "People had been in non-stop contact with each other, in meetings and on the phone, during the previous few days. The meeting at which the decision is minuted was the culmination of the process. But it did not represent the decision itself."
Company sources say Dr Fay was taken by surprise by what amounted to an ultimatum from his colleagues. This is why his company had not warned the Government that it might change tack, causing grave embarrassment to the Prime Minister, who was in the House of Commons vigorously defending the dumping even as it was being abandoned.
Ministers at first assumed that the plan had been scrapped because the rig was carrying more oil and toxic chemicals than the company had admitted. Only the day before the Scottish Office had questioned Shell over Greenpeace allegations to this effect, though it now says it was satisfied by the response.
Dismantling the rig on land will be a formidable task, and no one expects it to happen soon. Shell wants to do the work in Britain but believes that it could be at least a year before it can get permission from the Government to start. It hopes to store the Brent Spar in a Norwegian fjiord in the meantime.
This is provoking a new battle. Environmental groups in Norway are threatening protests against any attempt to bring the rig into its waters. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation says that it would be unacceptable to tow the Brent Spar into Scotland's oil field fabrication yard for dismantling, and insists that it would be best to have stuck to the original scuttling plans.
Leading environmentalists, while pleased to see ministers and business being forced to take environmental concerns seriously, are anxious that there will be a ferocious backlash if there is any accident in towing or dismantling the rig.Reuse content