Brent Spar: a hollow victory

Industry must not bend to emotional blackmail, argues Roger Hayes
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The Independent Online
Greenpeace's victory over Shell has been heralded as a modern- day David and Goliath struggle. A struggle in which David's sling is replaced by rubber dinghies, helicopters and television news crews. The might of Shell against the wet suits of Greenpeace is certainly an image that captures the public's imagination. It provokes a very basic instinct, a long-known component of the British character, which made us all cheer every time the Ivory Coast or Japan scored a try at the Rugby World Cup. But is this an accurate image?

Shell is certainly a giant. It is a multi-billion, multinational company with vast resources and an excellent reputation. It must be made clear, however, that Greenpeace is no small-time organisation. It has a budget approaching pounds 100m, bases in more than 30 countries and millions of members, with all its resources directed to campaigning.

In other words, Greenpeace has one of the best-funded PR machines in the world. The battle between Shell and Greenpeace was more of a fight between the All Blacks and South Africa, than between the Ivory Coast and Scotland.

There are a few more myths that need slaying. Greenpeace is celebrating what it calls a victory for the environment. It was no such thing. All the scientific evidence - not one independent report challenged this - made clear that deep-sea disposal of the oil storage platform was the least environmentally damaging option. Land-based disposal is not only dangerous to the workers who will dismantle the rig, with its radioactive dust and poisonous metals, but it will also prove unpopular with the residents living near sites targeted for final disposal. Shell could find itself in a no-win situation in which it is unable to dispose of the rig either on land or deep at sea.

Meanwhile, the rig's condition is deteriorating. There is a real possibility that it could break up and cause an environmental disaster on Britain's coast. That was the true threat that a government scientist had warned of in that now infamous leaked memo which Greenpeace claimed supported its case against deep-sea disposal. Actually, the memo dealt purely with disposal in shallow water. That same scientist supported deep-sea disposal. The sad fact is that a campaign based on emotion has been allowed to overshadow the true situation.

It has to be admitted that Shell could have done more to carry foreign governments and its customers on their proposals. At least in this instance the British government took a firm lead in support of industry and supported Shell at home and abroad.

In many ways the Brent Spar calamity could mark the end of the road for Greenpeace. Why? Because Greenpeace has successfully hoodwinked the public, humiliated the British government and defeated Shell. But at an enormous cost. It has no solutions and has unwittingly or otherwise created a more dangerous environmental problem than that which it originally opposed. Time will prove this to be both a dangerous and untenable situation which, once apparent, will cause public opinion to turn against Greenpeace and others of their ilk.

Take another example, radioactive waste. Greenpeace is opposed to the production of all such waste. The logic of this argument would lead to a world where there were no more X-rays, where cancer units would lose access to the radio isotopes needed to destroy cancerous cells and industry would lose a valuable material. Greenpeace has taken an emotional stance without apparently caring about the consequences. I know itdoes care about the issues, but I wish we could as a society have an informed debate so that a consensus can be reached. The current adversarial climate only leads to disastrous decisions.

Government and industry must learn from this damaging experience. The challenge is one of communications. For far too long, the public has not been allowed to draw its own informed conclusions. The environmental debate has been manipulated by single-issue campaigners willing to break the law to achieve a result. The Brent Spar debacle will in time be seen as a pyrrhic victory. That is why it is essential that government and industry hold their nerve and do not succumb to emotional blackmail.

The writer is director-general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum.

Miles Kington is on holiday.