The Brent Spar

The Brent Spar is often used as an example of the power of NGOs. However, the Brent Spar case might also put NGOs on the dark side of the moon.

The Brent Spar was operated by both Shell and Esso in a 50-50 cooperation. In 1992 Shell UK started to examine how to dispose the Brent Spar. There were 30 studies initiated by Shell on this topic. These studies stated that deep sea disposal, i.e. sinking the Brent Spar, is the best option, also for the environment.  Shell was communicating with British NGOs which agreed on the solution. Deep sea disposal was allowed by the British government. Neighboring countries were informed and agreed. Given this setting, it was decided by Shell to sink the Brent Spar.

At this point Greenpeace started to protest against sinking. Greenpeace opposed the 30 studies and said that consequences for the sea were unforeseeable. A main reason was that they assumed 5,500 tons of leftovers of oil to be still in the Brent Spar. This amount of oil would have been put into the sea. This amount was far more than Shell had used in the studies. Greenpeace also pointed out that other companies could follow the Brent Spar case and sink oil platforms in the sea. Greenpeace highlighted that sinking the Brent Spar was only due to economic reasons. From their point of view, the studies were only used to disguise Shell’s true aim of maximizing profits.

As Greenpeace’ power stems from morality all objective reasons given by Shell were not believed by the public.  As a result, for example in Germany customers boycotted Shell gas stations. But this boycott hit the wrong people. Shell is only the umbrella brand. The actual company Shell U.K. is not connected in any other way to Shell Germany. In particular, the owners of the German gas stations were not included in the decision to sink the Brent Spar.

What Shell did wrong, was fighting the Greenpeace activists who occupied the Brent Spar with water cannon. This manifested their image as the “bad guy”.

Shell finally decided to dispose the Brent Spar on land.

However, the true scandal may have never made it to the public: In June 1995, a study was published in the scientific journal “Nature”. This study stated that the impact on the environment by sinking the Brent Spar would have been minimal and the authors even said it would have been a gift to the eco-system. In September 1995, Greenpeace had to publish publicly that the 5,500 tons of leftovers of oil they assumed to be in the Brent Spar, was too much. In October 1995, the assessment of the Brent Spar by a Norwegian independent institution found that it was only 75 to 100 tons of oil. This is 1.36% – 1.82% of the amount assumed by Greenpeace. In retrospective, it seems to be true that sinking the Brent Spar would have been the best option, also ecologically.

This example points out that NGOs are very powerful. The scientific and legal reasons given by Shell had nothing to put up against the moral power of the NGO.

1 comment
  1. Excellent points and a very good post in general; thanks Andrea. It is actually a fairly common practice in environmental conservation to sink at least certain types of junk (statues etc.) into coral reefs, because the reefs grow on the junk (here’s an example:

    Of course with Brent Spar it was about symbolism more than anything else (though it’s certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Greenpeace wasn’t aware of the potential benefits of sinking the rig). Sinking the rig represented harmful business practices upheld by large corporations (and frankly Shell’s history in terms of responsible business practices is not exactly squeaky clean 🙂 ) and that’s what Greenpeace was essentially attacking. But as you point out, these are exactly the types of simplifications and moral arguments that third sector organizations use against corporations – it’s the type of power they possess.

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