Leading Article: They lose even when they win

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The Independent Online
BOTH the British Government and Shell happen to be right, and Greenpeace wrong, in the increasingly dramatic saga over the scuttling of the Brent Spar oil platform. Much of Greenpeace's case is statistically illiterate (not for the first time) as well as being environmental nonsense. Shell is not dumping "14,500 tonnes of toxic litter"; this is the weight of the entire giant oil platform. Respectable estimates suggest that as few as 130 tonnes of potentially toxic substances may be involved and these will be diluted to the point of harmlessness in the depths of the wide Atlantic. Scrapping the Brent Spar on land, as Greenpeace demands, would almost certainly be worse, exposing workers to dangerous substances. It would repeat the error over the dumping of low-level nuclear waste in the early 1980s. Then as now Greenpeace wanted an end to dumping at sea. In reality, this posed no real hazard at all whereas the storage of the waste on land exposed people to greater radiation.

But Shell deserves very little sympathy, and the Government not the slightest for being on what is clearly the losing end of the public debate. A boycott in Germany, which is now spreading to Britain, has cut the company's sales by a fifth. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, meanwhile, John Major, who needs all the friends he can get, has been berated by Chancellor Kohl for supporting Shell. The truth is that, despite their best efforts, neither the oil industry nor the Tory government is trusted on environmental matters. Over and over again, their attitudes seem short-term and self-interested.

Shell carefully cultivates a green image, but there is no evidence that its record is any better than that of the rest of the oil industry. All the oil companies dragged their feet on the removal of lead from petrol; even now, they are not exactly in the forefront of campaigns for "greener" motoring. They oppose, for example, on grounds of cost, the introduction of equipment at filling stations that would reduce the emission of cancer- causing chemicals. The Government has an even bigger problem. For years, Britain has lagged behind its European partners on issue after environmental issue. Just last week the EU reported that our beaches are among the worst on the continent: one-fifth fail relatively modest safety standards, 10 years after the date by which the Government initially undertook to meet them, and ministers are slowing, rather than accelerating, the clean-up. At this month's North Sea Conference, Britain was isolated on many issues: it was the only country still to be dumping sewage sludge at sea, the only one to discharge oil-contaminated cuttings from rigs, the only one not to have drawn up an action plan to reduce pollution by nitrogen and phosphorous, and the only one not to have taken the trouble to identify where these two pollutants were stifling life in its waters. It also lagged behind in reducing pollution by toxic metals, and regulating discharges of wastes from ships.

As Chancellor Kohl told Mr Major last week, Britain has been defying "not the looniness of a few greens, but a Europe-wide, worldwide trend for the protection of our seas". Ministers have also been flying in the face of overwhelming public opinion at home. MORI polls show that, by a majority of two to one, Britons say that the environment is more important than the economy, that two-fifths of the public are "green consumers", buying products on environmental criteria, and one quarter are "green activists". People put 11 times more trust in the information from environmental groups than from the Government. Greenpeace, though so often wrong, has flair and courage. Like the cavaliers in 1066 And All That they are "wrong but wromantic", while this Government of roundheads is "right but repulsive".

The Government has read this mood so badly for so long that it now has no easy escape. It protests the soundness of its policy over the Brent Spar and says it only needs to explain it better. This, indeed, is the lament heard from ministers over a whole range of policies. But unless a government is trusted, explanation is pointless. In the public mind, neither the oil companies nor the Tories have any record of care or concern for the environment: on roads, on petrol, on pollution generally, they change their policies belatedly and reluctantly. Only when they re-think their approaches over the whole range of environmental issues will they be able to enjoy the benefits of being right.