‘The Sea Is Not A Dustbin’: Remembering Greenpeace’s Brent Spar Campaign

Claudia Hacke | 6 January 2023

◇ Activism / Business History / Environmental History / Political History 

The decommissioned Brent Spar oil buoy
Image: The Brent Spar

This year marks the anniversary of an important moment in the history of climate activism. January 2023 marks 25 years since Shell decided on the re-use of the decommissioned oil buoy, the Brent Spar.[1] The fate of the Spar had been at the centre of an international dispute between Shell and Greenpeace in 1995, and it took until 1998 for a final decision to be made. Re-use, Shell argued that year, ‘is the Best Practicable Environmental Option for the Brent Spar after making the required balance of technical, environmental, safety and cost considerations’.[2]

In 1995, however, the company had made the same argument to support an entirely different plan, which was deep-water disposal or, in other words, sinking the buoy at sea.[3] What Shell did not take into account in 1995 was that an experienced group of environmental activists under the banner of Greenpeace International would launch a high-profile campaign against Shell’s license to dump.

As a historian, the Brent Spar events fascinate me. Greenpeace’s intervention in Shell’s disposal plan lives on in public memory today. Taking place in 1995, a year before I was born, my interest was piqued after learning about the dimensions of this campaign that every adult around me seemed to remember. An occupation at sea, consumer boycotts on the European continent, the involvement of international political and legal bodies - all because of one oil storage buoy.[4] How was this possible? And why did it happen?

The Brent Spar campaign was just one of a long line of protests that helped shape Greenpeace as an activist organisation. By 1995, Greenpeace could already present over twenty years of experience in the field of environmental activism. Browsing through Steve Erwood’s Greenpeace Chronicles shows us sealing and whaling campaigns, anti-nuclear protests, actions against chlorine bleaching and ozone-depleting gases, and the road to the Antarctic ‘World Park’.

It is no coincidence all these events have been documented so well. Scholars argue that Greenpeace has always been aware of the power of the media.[5] In Erwood’s Chronicles we see Greenpeace activists sailing their dinghies in front of whaling fleets, throwing their bodies in front of sealing vessels crashing through ice masses, or getting manhandled during arrest by military personnel. This type of radical protest facilitates the creation of spectacular footage that confronts the readers or viewers at home with environmental disaster. In other words, it is meant to draw our attention - and it often does.

It is important to understand that despite this radical edge, Greenpeace’s activism is not - and has never been - based on violence. In fact, one of the organisation’s core values is their commitment to peacefulness and nonviolence. As well as conducting reactive campaigns, Greenpeace also investigates and promotes solutions to existing problems (such as ozone depletion), sometimes by working together with corporations through one of their specialist (media, legal or scientific) units, the first of which was being founded back in the 1980s.[6]

It is clear that Greenpeace was a diverse organisation by 1995. A history of non-violent protests, a strong media apparatus, and specialist unions supporting the organisation with advice - these were all important facets of the Brent Spar campaign.

Greenpeace opposed Shell’s plan to sink the buoy because the activist group feared it would set a dangerous precedent resulting in many other decommissioned oil structures being sunk in the future.[7] This they believed could lead to irreversible environmental damage. More important than this, however, was the moral argument: ‘the sea is not a dustbin’. If consumers were expected to sort and recycle their rubbish, why not Shell?[8]

Not surprisingly, the consumer played an important role in the campaign to follow. Boycotts of Shell gas stations led to financial loss on the company’s end.[9] In Germany, the situation escalated and fifty service stations were damaged by the public - two of them by fire-bombs and one by bullets.[10] Greenpeace was consequently forced to remind their supporters that it does not condone violence in any way.

Meanwhile, political opinion swayed towards Greenpeace as well. Campaigners had lobbied with their European environmental ministers, some of whom (such as the German minister Angela Merkel) publicly spoke out.[11] By June, a majority of the countries in the Oslo and Paris (OSPAR) Commission for the protection of the marine environment supported the stance of the activist organisation.[12]

However, this was not true of the United Kingdom, whose Department of Trade and Industry had accepted Shell’s disposal plan in the first place. What is interesting to note here, is that the UK government had notified the OSPAR Commission and other European governments in advance about the decision to dump, and no objections reportedly where raised.[13] This changed after the Brent Spar campaign was launched by Greenpeace, which demonstrates the influence and power of the public.

On 20 June 1995, Shell conceded not to sink the Brent Spar and literally turned the tow-ship around. As the business historian Keetie Sluyterman explains, there was no victory for the company anymore. Going ahead with the disposal plan would further damage Shell’s reputation, but giving in to public demand would raise the anger of the UK government.[14] And so it did: the UK Prime Minister John Major publicly called Shell “wimps” for abandoning ship, quite literally.

But it was not only Shell that suffered at the hands of the Brent Spar campaign. After an independent study was launched to develop a new disposal plan for the buoy, it became clear that Greenpeace had made a mistake during the campaign. On June 16, the organisation had claimed that there was more oil remaining in the Spar than Shell had previously stated.

Based on samples activists had taken during their occupation of the Spar, Greenpeace stated the remaining oil in the tank to be over 5,500 tonnes, as opposed to Shell’s 100 tonnes.[15] However, this was a miscalculation. After publicly admitting this in September, Greenpeace lost the faith of supporters and the media, specifically in the UK. To use the words of the political scientist Grant Jordan: “they [Greenpeace] hurt their brand image more badly than they harmed that of Shell.”[16]

Nevertheless, the Brent Spar campaign arguably ended on a positive note for the environmentalists. The OSPAR Commission called for a moratorium on the disposal of offshore installations in the North-East Atlantic in 1995.[17] This ban was finally ratified in 1998, prohibiting the dumping of all steel installations at sea.[18] A number of other installations previously schemed to be dumped at sea were consequently dismantled at shore, including the Brent Spar in 1998.[19]

It seems like a victory after all, but was this the end of the matter? To be honest, not really. In 2019, Greenpeace once again boarded oil rigs in the Brent Field to protest Shell’s plan to leave some decommissioned oil infrastructure in place, rather than completely removing it from the North Sea. Again, Shell was supported by the UK government.

Almost like an echo from the past, the Brent Spar memory is kept alive through contemporary events.

Claudia Hacke is a PhD Candidate with the Economic and Social History research group at Utrecht University. Her current research provides a historical lens on family firms and gender equality in the Netherlands, 1900-2020 - find out more. This blog post is based on her research masters thesis.

[1] Shell International Limited, Brent Spar Dossier (2008), link: https://www.shell.co.uk/sustainability/decommissioning/brent-spar-dossier.html. Press release ‘5.2.8. Shell chooses Wood-GMC solution for Brent Spar’, 29 January 1998, pp. 58.

[2] Shell, Brent Spar Dossier. Press release ‘5.2.8. Shell chooses Wood-GMC solution for Brent Spar’, 29 January 1998, pp. 58.

[3] Keetie Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive in Turbulent Markets, 1973-2007, Vol. 3, A History of Royal Dutch Shell (Boom Publishers/Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 335.

[4] Steve Erwood, The Greenpeace Chronicles: 40 Years of Protecting the Climate (Greenpeace International, 2011), pp. 100-105, link: https://issuu.com/greenpeaceinternational/docs/greenpeacechronicles.

[5] Frank Zelko, Make it a green peace: the rise of countercultural environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 50-51; Liesbeth van de, Hans Rodenburg, and Guus Wieman, ‘Milieuactivisten in maatpak: de Europeanisering van Greenpeace International (1987 -1993)’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 130 (2017) 1, pp. 83-100, pp. 87.

[6] Neil Carter, The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 139-140; Peter Rawcliffe, Environmental Pressure Groups in Transition (Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 87.

[7] Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive, pp. 337; Rex Weyler, Greenpeace International, ‘Brent Spar: The sea is not a dustbin’, 24 September 2016, link: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/47744/brent-spar-the-sea-is-not-a-dustbin/.

[8] Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive, pp. 337.

[9] Ibid., 337 and 339; Weyler, Greenpeace International, ‘Brent Spar: The sea is not a dustbin’, 24 September 2016.

[10] Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive, pp. 337.

[11] Weyler, Greenpeace International, ‘Brent Spar: The sea is not a dustbin’, 24 September 2016.

[12] Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive, pp. 337-338.

[13] Ibid.,p. 335 and 339.

[14] Ibid., p. 338.

[15] Grant Jordan, Shell, Greenpeace and the Brent Spar (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 134-139.

[16] Jordan, Shell, Greenpeace and the Brent Spar, pp. 140.

[17] Rémi Parmentier, ‘Greenpeace and the Dumping of Waste at Sea: A Case of Non-State Actors’ Intervention in International Affairs’, International Negotiation, 4 (1999) 3, pp. 433-455, pp. 442-443.

[18] Parmentier, ‘Dumping of Waste at Sea’, pp. 444-446.

[19] Ibid., 443; Sluyterman, Keeping Competitive, pp. 340.