Teaching and Learning Resource (TLR)

1. Title

The Brent Spar Conflict: Critical Analysis of the Greenpeace Case

2. Keywords

Brent Spar; contested knowledge; environmental politics; Greenpeace; knowledge ‘claims-making’; text-based analysis

3. Introduction

The dispute between Shell UK and Greenpeace, over Shell’s proposal to dispose of its Brent Spar oil installation by dumping it in the North Atlantic Ocean, is in many respects an archetypal contemporary environmental conflict, involving:

This case has undoubted potential for interdisciplinary environmental teaching and learning, inasmuch as it can be examined from the perspectives of biological and physical science, economics and business management, politics, sociology and philosophy. In the exercise which follows, sociological and philosophical perspectives are prioritised - albeit so as to create an overarching interdisciplinary (or, perhaps, metadisciplinary) framework, within which the contributions of other disciplines can also be considered (as opposed to the multidisciplinary assemblage of discrete disciplines which characterises much environmental higher education).

In a case such as Brent Spar, sociological insights are perhaps of most obvious relevance to the study of mass influence over the public response. Similarly, one might suppose that philosophical ideas would be most readily applicable to questions of environmental value. However in this exercise we deploy sociological and philosophical thinking particularly in the examination of those scientifically and non-scientifically derived ‘knowledges’ which Greenpeace constructs and proclaims in support of its position on the Brent Spar controversy - in other words, we are drawing specifically on ideas from the sociology and philosophy of knowledge.

The learning task, then, is an attempt to ‘make sense’ of the negotiating position, publicly adopted by Greenpeace during the Brent Spar conflict, in terms of the arguments advanced (explicitly and implicitly); in terms of its scientific, political/ideological and philosophical content; and in respect of the literary devices used in support of the arguments. Specifically it involves examination of extracts from selected news releases produced by Greenpeace, in order to reveal some of the ways in which that organisation endeavours to make its case credible and appealing (especially in the eyes of public and political opinion). This is considered to be a worthwhile exercise for at least two immediate reasons:

The exercise does not, however, involve an evaluation of the Greenpeace case, either for the credibility of their science and/or for the legitimacy of their ethical stance: the methods used here, and the evidence provided, are insufficient for that purpose.

From a wider educational viewpoint, this approach has the further advantage of exposing students to epistemological questions - that is, concerning the nature of knowledge itself. The rationale, briefly put, is that students who have some awareness of the characteristics of knowledge (including the provisional, uncertain and frequently contested nature of scientific knowledge) will be:

4. Aim

This TLR invites learners to develop and deploy sociological thinking (notably, about environmental stakeholders - their interests, values and audiences etc); philosophical thinking (pertaining especially to epistemology - both in the ‘knowledge claims’ advanced by stakeholders and those advanced by themselves as students); and some elementary approaches to literary analysis of texts. In so doing, the TLR facilitates the achievement of three wider aims in environmental higher education - namely the enhancement of interdisciplinarity, critical thinking and values awareness.

5. Learning outcomes

Students who have successfully engaged with this TLR will:

6. Pre-requisites

This is a challenging exercise, which is unlikely to benefit students who are operating below academic Level 3 - even where there has been previous curriculum coverage in environmental philosophy, politics and sociology.

The major pre-requisite is an ability - or, at least, the potential - to consider scientifically- and non- scientifically derived knowledge in terms of ‘claims-making’ activity. Hence students whose prior educational experiences have explicitly or implicitly encouraged the concretisation of an unproblematic view of knowledge (as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’) will be particularly challenged by this TLR.

7. How to use TLR

This TLR could form the basis of an assignment and/or could be used to facilitate student-centred discussion.

For the latter, it is preferable that participants have prior access to the text and accompanying questions, and to some additional recommended reading. Used in this way, the exercise is designed to operate interactively, and will probably lose efficacy with SSRs in excess of around 15:1. Where students have limited relevant experience on which to draw, team teaching could assist in stimulating debate. Conversely, more experienced students could initially work in small groups (perhaps of four or five), with limited supervision; a concluding ‘plenary’ session might then be arranged to allow each grouping to lead the discussion of one major point. Depending on the students’ level of experience, between 60 and 90 minutes could be profitably devoted to the class-based exercise (i.e. excluding the preparatory element).

8. Instructions to students

Read the accompanying ‘Introduction to the Brent Spar Controversy’ (Appendix 1) and ‘Extracts from Selected Greenpeace News Releases’ (Appendix 2), along with a selection from the Recommended Reading list, and then consider the following questions:

  1. What main arguments do you think that Greenpeace is trying to put, explicitly and implicitly?
  2. In what ways, and to what extent, does Greenpeace deploy science in support of its position? For example, is there any substantial appeal to the scientific ‘facts’, or is it precisely the limitations of (including the uncertainty attached to) the science that legitimates Greenpeace’s position?
  3. In what ways, and to what extent, does Greenpeace rely on an appeal to environmental values to support its position?
  4. In what ways, and to what extent, does Greenpeace make use of ‘external’ sources of authority or legitimacy to add credibility to its case? For example, what role is played by public opinion, (non-Greenpeace) scientists, national legislation and the views of national governments, international legislation/agreements and the views of inter-governmental bodies?
  5. How far does the Greenpeace position appear to have been consistently held over time? What ‘shifting of ground’ (if any) do you detect, and to what might it be attributable?
  6. What, in your view, can be said about the choice of language and rhetorical devices deployed by Greenpeace? For example, is the language ‘connotation-rich’ or broadly neutral, and do you detect any significant use of metaphor or analogy? Look particularly at the extract from Peter Melchett’s letter for possible ways in which he seeks to convey the idea of a dichotomy between Shell and Greenpeace.

9. Stimulus Material

See Appendix One and Appendix Two.

10. Degree stage

As indicated above (Pre-requisites) this TLR is intended primarily for students operating at academic Level 3 or above.

11. Resource requirements

Used as the basis of a student-centred learning activity, this TLR can operate in any ordinary teaching room. An overhead projector (with transparencies and marker pens) and/or flipchart (with marker pens) may be useful.

12. Preparation

As indicated above (Instructions to Students), preparation for this TLR involves reading the accompanying ‘Introduction to the Brent Spar Controversy’ (Appendix 1) and ‘Extracts from Greenpeace News Releases’ (Appendix 2), along with a selection from the Recommended Reading list.

13. Links with other TLRs

In terms of subject content, this TLR is perhaps most closely related to Environmental Risk and the Precautionary Principle (since Greenpeace’s stance vis-à-vis the Brent Spar is based on a precautionary argument).

However its wider concerns with ‘contested knowledge’ and ‘knowledge claims-making’ are shared with numerous other TLRs, including:

More generally, the aims and/or learning outcomes of this TLR are related to those of other TLRs listed in the following 'thematic clusters':

14. Follow-up activities

More substantial learning activities on the Brent Spar conflict could, of course, examine the negotiating positions of both main protagonists.

Tutors and/or students could also use the same (or similar) aims and learning outcomes as a basis for examining other contested environmental questions (e.g. pertaining to genetically-modified organisms), provided appropriate textual resources can be accessed.

15. Recommended reading

1. Science : its contested nature, its use for legitimation, its general authority

2. Environmental beliefs/values

3. NGOs and campaigning

4. Media and the environment - who sets the agenda, wields influence etc

5. Journals

6. Websites

16. Users' comments

“The subject of the case study is in itself very useful & We are keen to educate our [engineering] students in the economic and social issues associated with what may appear to be ‘engineering solutions’. They need to understand the areas of risk perception, public opinion and the role of the media.”
“[It] needs to be more scientific and less waffly.”
“The idea of the workshops [i.e. TLRs] in general is excellent and allows students to work in groups where they can swap ideas and opinions and learn to work in teams ... The idea of cross curriculum teaching of ‘sustainability’ issues is very important to us as a University. We will promote the idea of the workshops to other Faculties.”
“Interesting … thought provoking … highly contemporary.”
"There were a lot of ideas and concepts that are hard to grasp any other way.”
"It provoked a lot of good discussion.”
“I could relate what I saw in the press … to the analysis we carried out on it.”
"It highlighted the ideological nature of reports and use of science.”
"It helped me to see how to draw ideas out of what you read.”
“It was challenging to … perform a close textual analysis.”
“[It was] just right for third years … [but it] would have been hard with no prior understanding of [the] concepts.”
“Too easy - this is first year material.”
“I found the readings very interesting, and thought the questions helped me bring out the things ‘you’ were looking for … I’m not sure I learned anything earthshattering, seeing as … has been pushing these points all term, but without my previous background it would be very insightful.”
“If I had not been doing this course … I would have found it pointless.”
“The students were given the materials the week before … It took about 75 minutes with class debriefing … I agree with [the students’] comments. It needs Shells side too. And … there really aren’t many metaphors in his stuff. It’s mainly meaning through analogy, I think.”

Appendix 1


Brent Spar - Technical Information

Brent Spar is a floating oil storage and loading buoy (ie not a drilling rig) used until 1991 by Shell UK in the North Sea. It has an overall height of 137 metres, a main body diameter of 29 metres, and a total weight (including ballast and residual contents) of around 14,500 tonnes.

Summary of the Conflict Between Shell and Greenpeace

Brent Spar came to public prominence in 1995, when the British government announced its support for Shell’s application for disposal in deep Atlantic waters (approximately 250 km from the west coast of Scotland, at a depth of around 2.5 km). Greenpeace ran a high-profile media campaign against this decision, including calls for boycotts of Shell service stations, and its activists occupied Brent Spar for more than three weeks. In the face of public and political opposition in northern Europe (including some physical attacks on service stations in Germany), Shell abandoned its plans to dispose of Brent Spar at sea - whilst continuing to stand by its claim that deep sea disposal represented the most responsible solution in both health and safety and environmental terms. Greenpeace’s own reputation also suffered during the campaign, when it was obliged to acknowledge that sampling errors had led to a substantial over-estimate of the oil remaining in Brent Spar’s storage tanks. Following Shell’s decision to pursue only on-shore disposal options - as favoured by Greenpeace and its supporters - Brent Spar was given temporary moorings in a Norwegian fjord. In January 1998 Shell announced its decision to re-use much of the main steel structure in the construction of a new harbour facilities near Stavanger.

Appendix 2



Greenpeace today scaled and took up residence on an old North Sea oil platform to stop its owner, Shell, from dumping the rusting hulk and its highly toxic contents to the sea bed.

Four climbers used ropes and winches to scale the Brent Spar, which is the first of 400 North Sea oil platforms to be dumped at sea. The climbers have food and supplies for what is expected to be a long occupation. The Moby Dick is standing by as a safety vessel. The activists first climbed the steel ladders on the installation, then scaled the outer part of the rig, 28 metres high above the waterline.

After Moby Dick captain Pelle Pettersson notified the five other rig support vessels in the area, stating that Greenpeace was protesting the dumping of the Brent Spar, a Shell standby vessel then sailed very close to the Moby Dick and the inflatables, harassing them.

The Brent Spar contains over 100 tonnes of toxic sludge -- including oil, arsenic, cadmium, PCBs and lead -- including more than 30 tonnes of radioactive waste ...

A Greenpeace report released today, ‘No Grounds for Dumping: The decommissioning and abandonment of off-shore oil and gas platforms’ ... concludes that total removal is not only the best environmental option but also the most cost-effective, feasible and job-saving.


International support for Greenpeace action to prevent the sea dumping of toxic laden North Sea oil platforms continues to grow.


Quotes translated from Danish TV:

Ritt Bjerregaard, EU Commissioner for the environment:

‘Actually, I think most countries in the EU think this is dirty and that it should be stopped ... [I]t is good that Greenpeace is around to ensure these things do not go on secretly.’

Svend Auken, Danish Minister for Environment and Energy:

‘... There are many problems in the North Sea. Many of the platforms out there are about to reach the time when they will have to be scrapped. This has to be done in a safe manner and the only way this can be done is on land ...’

Peter Sand Mortensen, Chair of Fishermen’s Sector, International Transport Federation, ITF.

‘It is quite simply a catastrophe. For the environment, for the fishermen, for all of us ... if a permit is given now, what is to be expected for the 400+ other installations out there ...’


[M]ost North Sea States have agreed that it is totally unacceptable to dump offshore installations at sea and recommend the decommissioning of rigs on land. The only objections to this recommendation came from the UK, France and Norway ...


The opposition to dumping the Brent Spar was based on the following facts:

(i) There has been no formal inventory of the Brent Spar’s contents, so the environmental impacts could not possibly be properly assessed.

(ii) There is a lack of understanding of the deep sea environment, and it is currently impossible to predict the effects of the proposed dumping on deep sea ecosystems.

(iii) The documents which supported Shell’s licence application are highly conjectural in nature. They contain numerous unsubstantiated assumptions, minimal data and extrapolations from unnamed studies.

(iv) Dumping the Brent Spar would create a precedent for dumping other contaminated structures in the sea and would undermine current international agreements. The environmental effects of further dumping would be cumulative.

(v) Dismantling of the Brent Spar is technically feasible and offshore engineering firms believe they can do it safely and effectively. The necessary facilities are already routinely in use and decommissioning of many other oil installations has already been carried out elsewhere in the world.

(vi) To protect the environment, the principle of minimising the generation of wastes should be upheld and harmful materials always recycled, treated or contained.

Greenpeace believes Shell UK were right in not dumping the Brent Spar. This view is supported by most governments in Europe and a vast majority of the public. There will always be scientific debate, but in the arena of this debate the principle of precautionary action is applied and the benefit of the doubt given to the environment.

LETTER TO SHELL UK (from Peter Melchett, Executive Director, Greenpeace UK, to Dr Christopher Fay, Chairman and Chief Executive, Shell UK Ltd: dated 4 September 1995)

As you know, we were concerned that no full analysis had been done of the contents of the Brent Spar prior to your decision to dump it. Greenpeace therefore took some samples from a storage tank on the Brent Spar during our occupation ... We thought samples had been successfully taken from storage tank 1, but we have realised in the last few days that when the samples were taken the sampling device was still in the pipe leading to the storage tanks, rather than in the tank itself.

In many references to our sampling, we stressed that the results were not definitive, but I’m afraid that in writing to you and your colleagues on the Shell UK Board on 19 June, I said that our sampling showed a particular quantity of oil on the Brent Spar. That was wrong, and I apologise to you and your colleagues for this.

As I’ve said, our main concern was that there should be a full and independent inventory of the contents of the Brent Spar, and Greenpeace is delighted that, following your decision not to dump the Brent Spar at sea, such an inventory is being compiled by the independent analysts DNV.

As you also know from my letter to you of 16 August, since your decision not to dump the Brent Spar, scientists have now made it clear that there were fundamental flaws in the scientific arguments that Shell UK put forward to the public and to UK Government Ministers, justifying your decision to dump, in particular, concerning the ecology of the area where you proposed to dump the Brent Spar. I hope that is something, now you have the evidence for this, that Shell UK will be prepared to admit publicly.

In any event, as you know, the basic argument between Greenpeace and the European governments that supported our position on the one hand, and Shell UK and the UK Government on the other, was not about the contents of the Brent Spar, nor the physical characteristics of the proposed dump site. The argument was about whether it was right to dump industrial waste of any sort in the deep oceans, whether dumping the Brent Spar would be a precedent for dumping other oil installations, and indeed other waste in the oceans, and, fundamentally, over whether we should dump wastes into any part of the environment, as opposed to reducing waste, and recycling, treating or containing harmful materials. Our view remains that the division between us on the Brent Spar depends on how deeply we value our environment, and what damage and precedents we find unacceptable ...


Shell UK are now studying 200 different options for onshore disposal or re-use of the Brent Spar. Greenpeace welcomes this following a constructive meeting with the Chairman of Shell UK ...


... The ‘Best Practicable Environmental Option’ (BPEO) - referred to in the Shell UK press release about the same meeting - is a UK Government policy which Greenpeace believes is fundamentally flawed and is not the same as the best environmental practice ...


Greenpeace today welcomed the first independent inventory of the contents of the Brent Spar ...



Shell* (kg)

DNV (kg)



6.5 - 8.0



75,000 - 100,000



24,000 - 40,000









1.0 - 3.8



7,500 - 13,200



5.0 - 21.0









0.9 - 1.5









5,200 - 8,300

LSA Scale (est)

30 tonnes

7.8 - 9.4 tonnes

* source: The Brent Spar Abandonment Impact Hypothesis, December 1994. Table 3.2.7 - the estimated quantities of the main organic and heavy metal contaminants within the structure

‘It is good that we now have credible results,’ said Geir Wang-Andersen of Greenpeace International. ‘This shows that the Greenpeace campaign and the Greenpeace position on decommissioning of oil installations was and is right, because it is totally unacceptable to dump this kind of waste into the oceans.’


‘Today’s information now means that the best method of decommissioning the Brent Spar on land can be decided properly, with all the facts before us, instead of the previous “dump and hope for the best” situation,’ said Wang-Anderson.


... Greenpeace today called on the UK Government to rule out dumping at sea for all oil installations and abandon the so-called ‘case by case’ approach.

‘The issue at take here is whether we live in a throwaway society’ says Greenpeace Campaign Director Chris Rose. ‘The public knows it is wrong to dump old cars in the village pond - and it’s wrong for the Government to let the oil industry treat the sea as its rubbish dump. The UK Government must rule out dumping at sea and abandon the so-called case-by-case approach.


Greenpeace also pointed out that in December 1995 a report for the oil industry group UKOOA (UK Offshore Operators Association) noted that the ‘best environmental option’ for decommissioned steel installations is to bring them ashore ...


Almost three quarters (74%) of the British public who are aware of the Brent Spar controversy believe Greenpeace should continue its campaign against the dumping of oil platforms, according to an Opinion Leader Research poll carried out for Greenpeace in the UK. ...


Greenpeace today welcomed the report by international scientists brought together by UK Energy Minister Tim Eggar.


Working under he auspices of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and chaired by Professor John Shepherd of Southampton Oceanography Centre, the scientists concluded:-

The UK Government should not assess each installation purely on a ‘case by case’ basis. It should also take into account the cumulative impact of all disposals of waste at sea.

‘This report clearly shows that scientific opinion does not back Government policy,’ said Dr Helen Wallace of Greenpeace UK. Energy Minister Mr Tim Eggar ‘should stop using science as an excuse to ignore public concern about the environment ...’

Greenpeace said today’s report gave a strong backing to the decision made by the Oslo Paris Commission last year to agree a moratorium on the disposal at sea of decommissioned offshore installations. The UK and Norwegian governments have expressed reservations to the moratorium.

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