Brent Spar

Copyright © 1995 Dwyane Hicks (

Originally posted to the Objectivism Study Group.

The following is a rough summary and series of observations about the recent Brent Spar event. I thought it might be of interest.

Three years ago, Shell started working on plans for the disposal of the Brent Spar (BS), an oil platform and resevoir for holding oil for oil tankers prior to the building of a pipe line currently in use. Shell hired Aberdeen U. for additional scientific work in order to ascertain the procedure which was to be the "least damaging to the environment" and started the legal process of acquiring liceses from nine agencies of the various governments and including the agencies of the European Commission. Shell has long prided itself as being "environmentally sensitive" and sensitive to public image.

Shell announced its plan this spring, at which time no government objected and all licenses were approved. Over a month ago, Greenpeace (GP) occupied the platform while it was still being prepared for transport to one of the 4 sites designated for dumping by the UK, where it would lie 2,000 meters under the surface.

One month ago, GP occupied the BS and Shell had to launch a team to remove the people, consisting of 23 protesters and journalists(!) The Shell team consisted of Shell security personnel, police and Peter Steele of the NorthScott Press Agency, who was invited as an independent press witness should there be any violent resistance. The operation was carried out without any incident other than using bolt-cutters to remove GP personnel attached to the BS by chains.

A couple of weeks ago when the BS was underway for transport, the BS was re-occupied by two protesters by means of a helicopter stationed on the GP ship Alstair. While Shell sprayed the BS with water from two adjacent ships in an attempt to prevent the arrival of other protesters, Shell could no longer remove the protesters from the BS by virtue of law which considered the BS "abandoned property" and beyond the jurisdiction of the owner.

At the same time GP initiated a boycott of Shell gas stations in Germany and in the Netherlands and lobbied government officials in Europe to disallow the sinking of BS by Shell.

In the course of the boycott in Germany, which resulted in a 30% reduction of sales, twenty gas stations were fire-bombed, and one bomb mailed to a Shell manager was intercepted by authorities.

The Greens Party in Germany has third place representation in the German parliament, with a yearly income of $13.5 million, and has increased influence by providing a voting margin. One week prior to the dismantling of BS, Helmut Kohl yielded to pressure and asked John Major, the prime minister of the United Kingdom at the G7 conference, to illegally rescind the license to Shell to dump the BS. Major refused.

Although Shell is the third largest multi-national corporation in the world, in Europe and in many parts of the world, it exists at the discretion of governing authorities and owns its resources by permission. Oil reserves in Europe are officially owned by governments, and Shell derives an income from obtaining oil only at the discretion of these governments. Nearly every aspect of Shell's operations in European countries is dependent on licenses which may be removed without justification.

(There are identifications by Ayn Rand which are very relevant here: her warning that property rights empower dissent and her distinguishing between the power of persuasion, or production and trade, versus the power of force.)

Shell UK is one of hundreds of companies existing throughout the world which is owned by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, which is headquartered in The Hague in Holland and in London and is governed by four Group Managing Directors. With the Group being 60% Dutch owned, 40% English, two of the Directors are always English and two Dutch, with the chief Director Dutch.

Shell UK, being the part owner (Esso is the other owner) and sole operator of the BS, was responsible for disposal of the BS, and Shell UK was resolute to complete that task. One hour prior to Shell UK chairman Chris Fay announcing that the disposal was being abandoned, chairman Fay, when asked by a colleague if they were proceeding, said "Hell, yes." Only the orders from the Group Managing Directors forced him to change course. What brought about that change of course?

During the two days prior to the changed decision, GP succeeded in dropping two additional protesters onto the BS via a helicopter. More importantly GP also released to the press the written pronouncement by a scientist that the disposal of BS could bring about local damage to marine life. The press disclosed only later that this pronouncement referred to the disposal of the BS in shallower waters, using a plan which had been rejected by Shell much earlier. After Shell changed course, the quoted scientist confirmed that the GP news release was misleading and supported Shell's previous plan.

Also during these two days, the Group Managing Directors of Royal Dutch/Shell Group met with Shell company executives from the countries of Northern Europe, while the governments of those countries, particularly Germany and Holland, brought pressure against Shell focussing on various licenses.

Although the disposal of BS was estimated to cost 10 million pounds by sea and 46 million pounds by land, the Group Managing Directors found that Shell's position was "untenable" and ordered Shell UK to stop disposal operations, just prior to their initiation. Just prior to the announcement, John Major had vigorously defended the sea disposal of BS and was subsequently infuriated at Shell's announcement.

At this point, it may be helpful to summarize what the various parties had done and not done:

GP had distributed false information to the press, had boycotted Shell and lobbied government officials.

The press, even in England, had passed on GP's false information to the public without examination and participated in the operations of GP, always having reporters accompany GP protesters on their ship. For example the BBC aired live interviews with reporter Craig Anderson on board the GP ship Altair, reporting on the "daring" exploits of protesters.

The British government, while supporting Shell in Parliament, left the task of protecting the BS from piracy to Shell, which was unauthorized to use retaliatory force against the boarders or the accompanying ship.

Northern European governments, after explicitly giving permission to Shell for sea disposal in accordance with national law and law of the European Commission, reversed their position and brought pressure against Shell, instead of protecting the rights of Shell.

Shell continued to publicize the fact that sea disposal was the least toxic threat to the environment, following the "environmental" standard it had previously set its public relations staff to follow. Never did Shell give any indication that its actions were motivated by cutting costs, gaining profit for its stockholders or creating wealth for the benefit of man. In fact, so explicit is Shell's concern "for the environment", one wonders if Shell would have attempted to dispose of BS in the sea even had that been the more expensive option.

Never did Shell point out that it was the victim of piracy and that government was responsible for protecting its property and liberty. Never did Shell report the nature of the pressure it received from the European governments, although that blackmail was crucial in making its position "untenable."

Also, none of the parties reported, found exception or challenged the fact that the German government acted in concert with "idealist" thugs (who fire-bombed two business establishments and attempted to send a mail-bomb to management) in black-mailing an organization to depart from a decision which the same government had previously approved. During the two-day meeting in The Hague, the Group Managing Directors of Shell explicitly asked the German government to condemn the fire-bombings. The German government refused.

In addition, although many parties have admitted that the sea disposal was the most environmentally correct course, no one has examined the motivation of GP. "We want to make them pay" is what one GP protester said. In addition the Norwegian GP has announced that Shell's tentative plans to temporarily store the BS in a Norwegian fjord will be protested, even though the BS must be kept somewhere until a site is selected for land disposal and is therefore part of the procedure in carrying out the land disposal which GP was ostensibly encouraging. Given the fact that 50 more oil platforms were to be disposed at sea, one can only surmise that GP will make that prospect expensive and tortuous for the oil industry as an end in itself.

What Shell and the other oil companies should learn is that "they are to pay" not for making the environment toxic but for changing it in any way, especially by bringing up oil from the depths of the earth beneath the North Sea and transforming it into a substance useable for human benefit.

That GP people bent on such nihilism should have such an influence on the most powerful country of the proposed European Union should be alarming to the rest of the world. This brings me to a related subject, the nature of the European Union in the future.

Since the end of WWII, Europe has moved to unite itself with two contraditory purposes. One was to lessen and finally abolish restraints to trade such as tariffs and quotas, but the other one was to transfer sovereignty from the individual countries to one supreme state. While progress has been made in reference to the former purpose, statist measures have expanded as the United States of Europe has become more feasible.

Although free trade and the fear of a revitalized Germany provided the initial impetus to the European Union, a number of developments are turning Europe into a super welfare state. Businesses in each country must now obey not only the regulations of their own countries but also that of the European Commission. The source of those regulations is usually the attempt to equalize regulation throughout Europe. But rather than lessen the regulation of the most regulated economy, the level of regulation of the least regulated countries is often raised. The European Parliament and the European Court is playing an increasing role in every country.

Other aspects of this super welfare state are transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor and institutionalized protectionism of markets. In addition, each country pays an ever increasing tax to the European body, and expenditures are increasing yearly.

Politicians talk not so much of making trade free in Europe as creating a Europe which can counter the power and influence of America. It is often pointed out that the European state will have a population which exceeds that of the U.S. I think these kind of attitudes reflect a statist orientation.

The Clinton administration supports further European unification, even if that means the abandonment of NATO, for the stated reason to prevent future war within Europe. But if Europe becomes more statist, what will that imply for Europe as a threat to others?

At this point, the process of unification is dealing with the prospect of adopting the European Monetary Unit (emu), and a split within the Conservative party of England dramatizes the debate over transfering sovereignty to the European Union. When one realizes that all the measures necessary to promote free trade and benevolent relationships among the existing countries are available to current sovereign governments, one wonders about the motive behind the pursuit of a government which will rule over all Europe. It is no accident that the politicians most sympathetic to freedom are fighting the unification of Europe, while the most statist politicians in each country are encouraging it.

The possible nature of that future Europe can be glimpsed by the treatment of Shell in its disposal of the Brent Spar. This event shows a contempt for law, a contempt for rights and a pragmatic willingness to go along with and exploit a group of nihilistic thugs. Where the Nazis had their brown shirts, a future Germany and/or Europe may have its Greens.

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