By Joan Trevor
Greenpeace scored a big victory over international giant Shell in the Brent Spar affair. Shell had got government permission to abandon a 20 year old oil installation at sea, despite many scientists saying it would cause terrible environmental damage. But they had to abandon the plan after bad publicity, and a boycott by drivers of Shell petrol stations.
Shell wanted to dump in the sea because it is cheaper than disposal on land. They said that they were being “responsible” when considering this disposal option, because part of being “responsible” is disposing cheaply. Partly they were right. But what they never said was that it only really matters to them how much they spend disposing of Brent Spar because they have to pay dividends to their shareholders.
Dividends, and the waste involved in capitalist competition, represent money we could take to spend on safe disposal of all environmental hazards. Environmental responsibility costs a lot. But we can and have to afford it.
If oil companies were nationalised, if the public owned the oil companies and did not have to pay out in wasteful dividends, we would have a lot more choices. We might actually decide to dump at sea and then to spend the money we had saved on other environmental projects.
In strictly scientific terms, few people have the knowledge to say which of Greenpeace or Shell is right about whether disposal at sea or on land is safer, and really that is not the main question in this affair.
The main question is how we get more control over what the oil companies do.
It makes more sense to believe Greenpeace. You don’t sail a boat out to the North Sea, 118 miles north of Shetland, skirmish with oil company ships, scale 28 metres of rusting and polluted iron, and camp there for weeks unless you know something. Do you believe the people who do that, or the half-a-million-a-year men who run Shell, whose only concern is to have an easy ride at the annual shareholders’ meeting? Who do you trust most to fight for a healthy environment?
Greenpeace’s action made and won the argument that public opinion should count in environmental decisions, not just the “responsibility” of oil company directors to their shareholders.