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Financial Times: Environment: Ripples are yet to fade after stormy debate

By Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent
Published: December 5 2007 07:52 | Last updated: December 5 2007 07:52

Twelve years ago the proposed dumping at sea of the Brent Spar, a North Sea oil storage facility owned by Shell, sparked one of the biggest environmental campaigns ever seen.

Greenpeace argued that disposing of the rig at sea would cause toxic pollution in the area, and should not be permitted. The group urged the UK government, which had given permission for the disposal, to force Shell instead to tow the equipment ashore for break-up on land, and gained widespread public support for its campaign.

Activists occupied the Brent Spar for more than three weeks, and raised a storm of publicity that eventually forced Shell to take the Brent Spar to shore, where it was recycled into a quayside in Norway.

Shell still bears the scars: a link to documents detailing the whole episode is a prominent feature on the home page of the company’s website. The company admits: “Brent Spar was damaging to our reputation. Despite the support of independent scientists for our proposals, we did not win public acceptance.”

As a result of the Greenpeace campaign, Shell says: “We recognised that we needed to change our approach not just to offshore decommissioning in the UK, but to how we conduct our operations everywhere.”

The Brent Spar was a watershed moment for the green movement: it showed how powerful environmental campaigning could be. Having flexed their muscles over the issue, green pressure groups grew much bolder in taking on businesses.

Businesses also took note: the Brent Spar became a case study in how not to deal with environmental issues – Shell was perceived as arrogant and disdainful of public opinion, and suffered economic consequences. Since then, businesses have been much keener to forge links with environmental groups in the hope of avoiding the negative publicity that so damaged Shell.

The repercussions of the incident can still be felt in the North Sea. Oil companies are now much more careful of how they carry out their operations in the region, and more open with the public on the effects of their drilling. Many more oil rigs will need to be dismantled in the North Sea over the next decade as they come to the end of their useful life, and all the owners want to avoid another Brent Spar.

But Greenpeace says there are still environmental challenges to be overcome in the area. Paul Horsman, a Greenpeace spokesman, says the North Sea is littered with thousands of tonnes of discarded drill bits and tailings. Much of this is toxic.

Some argue that it would be more harmful to move these materials than it would be to leave them to be gradually covered by mud, but Mr Horsman says it would be better to remove them. He says: “Companies must fulfil the promises they made when they started drilling in the North Sea, that they would clean up after themselves.”

As the North Sea oilfields are depleted, they could serve another use – one that could make oil companies part of the solution to climate change. Depleted North Sea oilfields are good candidates for storing carbon dioxide captured from power stations on land. Carbon capture and storage technology is now seen as one of the main potential answers to climate change, as it would allow us to continue to use fossil fuels to generate electricity without harming the climate.

Norway’s Statoil has been storing carbon under the North Sea in the Sleipner field for about a decade. Its work is seen as the model for other carbon capture and storage projects, which are now in the planning stage.

But there was a setback this year to plans to develop the technology in the UK when BP said it would not go ahead with a project to build a carbon capture and storage facility at Peterhead in Scotland, citing the failure of the UK government to guarantee financial support for the venture. Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, finally launched a long-awaited competition among energy generators in November, which will award government funding to build a power plant with carbon capture and storage technology.

North Sea nations were given a warning of the possible effects of climate change this autumn when a combination of weather conditions in the North Sea threatened serious flooding. Parts of the UK coast were flooded, though nowhere near as badly as feared: in most places, flood defences were not overwhelmed.

But meteorologists said the event was a warning of what could come in the future. Climate change is expected to lead to rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and ferocity of storms. This is likely to mean an increasing threat of flooding to coastal areas.

The Netherlands has already responded by developing floating houses for some areas. These houses are built on buoyant platforms, so if there is a flood they are not inundated. In the UK, a second Thames barrier has been mooted.

Apart from the climate, the most pressing environmental issue in the North Sea is fishing. Overfishing threatens fish stocks with collapse around the world, and in the North Sea the focus of concern has been cod.

This year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea said cod stocks were “at crisis point” in the North Sea, and would pass the point of no return if fishing were not halted.

The organisation has called in the past for a total ban on cod fishing in the North Sea until stocks have recovered, which could take more than a decade. It is currently advocating very reduced levels of catch, but has warned that it could reinstate its call for a ban if circumstances change.

Other fish stocks are also at risk, however. Haddock numbers have declined, though recently they rose slightly. Rays, skate and flatfish are all under strain.

One of the most serious problems for fisheries is bycatch. The European Union sets strict quotas for the various commercial fisheries. But when boats land fish that would take them above their quota, they must throw them away, even though they are usually dead. According to fishermen, about 60 per cent of the North Sea cod that is caught is discarded, dead, in this way.

A solution may be to change the fishing gear so that more fish escape, but this is hard to do. The problem could also be managed by imposing much more severe restrictions on the time that boats can spend at sea, but this would be unpopular with fishing communities.

There are occasional successes in managing fish stocks: the North Sea herring population was severely affected by overfishing in the 1970s and stocks plummeted. A ban was introduced on herring fishing from 1978 to 1982 and the stocks recovered, though not to the levels seen in the 1960s. Herring is regarded as one of the few sustainable fisheries in the North Sea.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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