The Brent Spar Incident

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The Brent Spar was an oil storage buoy located on the Brent oilfield in the North Atlantic Ocean, which was operated by Shell UK. It was used to store oil that was extracted from the under sea oilfield until an oil tanker transported the oil to land. The Brent Spar became obsolete around 1991 because of the building of an underwater oil pipeline that took the extracted oil directly to land. Shell UK then did a scientific, economic, and environmental study pertaining to the eventual disposal of the Spar, and concluded that deep sea disposal was the best option. Unfortunately, Shell UK forgot to take into consideration the political and public affects of the planned disposal. Greenpeace became actively involved in the stopping of the off-shore disposal once it was announced that Shell was given permission by the UK government to go ahead with the disposal. Greenpeace argued the Spar’s contents, as measured by Shell, were grossly miscalculated and the environmental impact would be catastrophic. This led to Greenpeace activists actually occupying the Brent Spar, bringing along journalist and reporters to document their findings and report their beliefs to the public. The media coverage brought a great deal of negative press and attention to Shell UK about their planned off-shore disposal. Consequently, “A campaign by Greenpeace – including coordinating a Europe-wide boycott of Shell petrol-filling stations – forced Shell to abandon plans to sink the Spar on June 20th, 1995.” After this decision by Shell, the Brent Spar was taken to an off-shore location in Norway, where it was anchored until an alternative disposal plan was agreed upon. An audit was conducted by an independent firm about the contents and claim of toxic material located on the Spar. The firm found no evidence of toxic material and that the oil content was only 150 tons (close to Shell’s estimate) compared to the Greenpeace estimate of 5,500 tons. The damage to Shell’s image had already been done though, and to avoid further public outcry and anger, Shell decided to dismantle and recycle the Brent Spar onshore.

According to Shell’s director of corporate affairs, John Wybrew, “Shell acknowledged that they had made a mistake in ignoring public concern about deep-water disposal, saying that any future decision to dispose of a disused offshore oil installation should not be based solely on scientific, economic and environmental considerations. Political and public considerations will take greater priority.” A reason for this fiasco to take root would be the failure of Shell to consider the public stance on disposing the Brent Spar into the North Atlantic. Greenpeace, of course, was the leading reason that this incident was brought to the attention of the world audience. Greenpeace decided to get involved because they objected to the sea disposal on a number of issues. One main point is that the deep sea disposal of the Brent Spar would create a precedent for the dumping of other contaminated structures into the ocean, undermining the current international agreements on ocean dumping. Another cause for the fiasco to take place was to protect the well-being of the environment. Greenpeace even went on to say that “the sinking would amount to an environmental catastrophe.” When words like catastrophe are used the general public tends to start paying more attention to the situation presented to them by the media. When situations like this are put into the limelight, people start to take a stance, and more times than not, it is against the big corporation. Greenpeace was able to get the public on their side and caused Shell to buckle under the pressure of the boycotts, lost sales, and even physical attacks. The main reason for this fiasco to get started and hold footing would be credited to the Greenpeace activists and the media coverage surrounding them occupying the Brent Spar. Television editors even admitted that “they had been manipulated...
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