Stormy ride for two unlikely friends

DAVID 1, GOLIATH 0: Despite public acrimony, Greenpeace and BP are finding a way of working things out

Geoffrey Lean
Saturday 23 August 1997 23:02

At The height of last week's dispute on the sea and in the courts between Greenpeace and BP, on the same day that big business threatened environmentalists with financial ruin, a piece of paper arrived in the post that seemed incongruous, absurd even.

It was an invitation to a Greenpeace conference on forging "new alliances" with business to "help solve pressing environmental problems". The principal speaker at this heart-warming gathering in a smart London hotel is to be John Browne, the same man who is group chief executive officer of BP.

Nor is this a one-off affair. A week today, Mr Browne and Lord Peter Melchett, Greenpeace's executive director, are to dine a deux at a secret location. The dinner was fixed long before the events of last week and the heads of the two organisations are to treat them as ancient history when they meet. Despite appearances, last week's stand-off was less an escalation of a conflict between old enemies than a nasty row interrupting a growing relationship. On balance, BP is probably the environmentalists' preferred oil company, while Mr Browne is definitely their favourite oil boss.

This helped to diffuse the crisis that broke after BP obtained a court order to stop Greenpeace impeding its operations on the Foinaven oil field in the so-called Atlantic Frontier and began a pounds 1.4m damages action against the group and four of its staff. As the public row raged, Chris Rose - Peter Melchett's deputy and one of those per- sonally threatened with bankruptcy - quietly worked out an agreement by phone and fax with Rodney Chase, chief executive officer of BP Exploration. "Our campaign is not really about BP. It just happens to be the exploration company on the spot," says Rose.

Tom Burke, special adviser to the last three environment secretaries, adds: "It is ironic that Greenpeace has got into a fight with BP, of all the world's oil companies, because it is the most environmentally aware."

By the week's end, Greenpeace had won the bout on points. Although it agreed to abide by the legal order, this is normal practice (it wisely avoids fighting the courts), and it seems to have been withdrawing its campaigners from Foinaven anyway, partly on safety grounds. Having failed to land a knockout blow, BP dropped its damages suit without achieving its aim of forcing Greenpeace to agree not to take action against BP's other fields on the Frontier. Moreover, the environmentalists finally got massive attention for a campaign that had stubbornly, and frustratingly, failed to catch fire.

In fact it turned out to be a good week for Greenpeace. On the day they reached agreement with BP they also scored a victory over Peter Mandelson, the "Dome Secretary", because he had been forced to drop plans to cover the millennium structure with a roof coated with toxic PVC: Greenpeace - as reported exclusively in the Independent on Sunday last month - had threatened to disrupt its construction. (The environmentalists obliterated any memory of the fact that they had previously expressed reservations - though milder - about the plastic-coated glass-fibre replacement material.)

Melchett, a former Labour minister in the House of Lords, who has more experience of office than most of the Cabinet, has already dined with Mandelson after Tony Blair instructed his "Prince of Darkness" to cultivate Greens before the election. But the relationship with Browne and BP, though newer and more tempestuous, is probably more firmly based since it has overcome disturbing evidence of environmental and human rights abuses by the company in Colombia.

A year ago BP shocked its fellow companies by resigning from the Global Climate Coalition, an international energy-industry lobby against attempts to control global warming. In May Mr Browne became something of a Green icon after a speech at Stanford University, California, in which he accepted that climate change was almost certainly taking place and pledged that BP would "focus on what can and should be done" to tackle it.

He explained that BP is increasingly backing solar power. One of its subsidiaries is already the world's third largest solar manufacturer, with 10 per cent of the $500m global annual market. Browne says he is "convinced that we can make solar competitive for supplying peak energy demand within 10 years". Indeed a BP study has found that opening a single big factory for solar cells - costing half the amount so far invested in the Foinaven field - will bring down costs sufficiently through economies of scale.

Greenpeace cites this optimistic assessment in its campaign against BP's operations on the Atlantic Frontier, adding to the evidence a Department of Trade and Industry finding that solar panels could "make a very substantial contribution to the electricity supply of this country".

Greenpeace's campaign against BP is Chris Rose's brainchild, and the principal object is to sharpen the environmentalists' largely unsuccessful attempts to push global warming higher up the public agenda. After 10 years of pressing for energy saving and curbs on cars to cut emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels (since these are the main cause of climate change), Greenpeace started to look at the role of oil production itself.

United Nations studies show that the world cannot afford to burn even half the oil already discovered if it is to have any hope of controlling global warming. This turns one of the original environmentalists' arguments - that the world would run out of oil - on its head. There is actually too much oil, not too little. Greenpeace argues, therefore, that it is pointless and dangerous to search for more.

Rose looked for somewhere to "draw a line in the sand" to dramatise this point. Opposing the expansion of an existing field, say in the North Sea, would not be dramatic enough. But the Atlantic Frontier, as its name suggests, represents an escalation in oil exploration. These waters about 100 miles north of the Scottish coast and the same distance east of the Shetlands are among the deepest and trickiest around Britain. The oil must be transported from beneath the sea bed, 2,000 feet below the surface, through freezing, stormy seas beset with bewildering currents.

Since conventional oil rigs cannot cope, BP is using huge floating production vessels, secured by 10 giant anchors, receiving oil through flexible tubes rising from the sea floor. But things have kept going wrong: the Foinaven field, the first in the area, is not expected to produce any oil before the end of the year, nearly two years behind the original schedule, while costs have soared.

Greenpeace worries about the fragile ecology of these waters, but its main concern is that successful production could lead to a new oil rush in similar areas around the world: last week it was also tangling with the US Coastguard as it tried to stop drilling in the Arctic's Beaufort Sea.

The principal targets are governments that grant licences to find and produce oil, but BP, the main company on the Atlantic Frontier, was bound to be in the front line. Greenpeace's tactics have included occupying Rockall for 48 days, seeking a judicial review over the granting of the licences, complaining to the European Commission that the licensing breaches its directives, and interrupting seismic surveying for oil by five companies.

But the campaign obstinately failed to ignite, let alone repeat Greenpeace's success over the Brent Spar two years ago. Some environmental groups were anxious that the oil company most sympathetic to their cause might be permanently antagonised. But last week's over-reaction by BP to the latest tactic - occupying the Stena Dee oil platform that BP was bringing to Foinaven to do repair work - bailed Greenpeace out. If the company had stopped at getting an injunction against further interference it would have won its point, gained sympathy and increased Greenpeace's woes. Its mistake was to threaten to bankrupt the organisation and its campaigners.

This was one of the first attempts in Britain to import a tactic widely used in the United States, where it is called the strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp. Lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages from protesters have frightened thousands of them into silence. The Department of Transport used Slapp successfully at Twyford Down, suing anti-road protesters for pounds 1.9m and thus scaring the middle classes away.

BP's use of Slapp brought environmental groups that had criticised the Atlantic Frontier operation in behind Greenpeace and alienated public opinion. The company had a genuine case but its legal action cast the campaigners in their favourite biblical role, as David. Tom Burke, who observed the Brent Spar saga from inside government, and who praises BP for the speed with which it wriggled out of its self-inflicted problem last week, warns: "No one remembers what David and Goliath were fighting about but everyone knows who won, and whose side they are on. Once you allow yourself to be seen as Goliath, you have lost."

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