Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

1.5 Learning from Brent Spar?

Vignette 4

The Brent Spar was a very large (14,500 tonne) floating oil storage and loading buoy that was in service for fifteen years in the Shell/Esso Brent Field in the North Sea until it was taken out of operation in 1991. In the early summer of 1995 an unprecedented series of events took place. Shell, one of the largest multinational oil companies in the world planned to dispose of the Brent Spar by sinking it at a site in the deep Northern Atlantic, with full UK Government approval. But a combination of the NGO Greenpeace, European Ministers and the public stopped them. The decision was revoked and on 29 January 1998 Shell UK announced that they had selected a new option for disposal that did not include sinking it in the sea. Different parts of the Brent Spar structure were to be dealt with in different ways. The Brent Spar’s hull was to be cut into slices, cleaned and reused to build an extension to the Mekjarvik quay, near Stavanger in Norway. The Brent Spar Platform was to be largely dismantled in Norway, and its topside facilities removed and scrapped onshore.

There are many different perspectives on the decisions and the processes by which they were reached. Different sets of values are clearly evident. Different boundaries were clearly drawn around systems of interest, particularly regarding stakeholders and issues. Thinking of an issue in technical, economic, environmental or social terms raises some very different expectations regarding who should decide what happens and what factors should be taken into account.

Ronnie Harding, an academic from the University of New South Wales in Australia included her brief analysis of the Brent Spar situation in her book Environmental Decision Making: The Roles of Scientists, Engineers and the Public. The extract in Box 3 indicates her perspective on the situation.

Box 3 What was the Brent Spar dispute about?

For Shell and the British Government the Brent Spar was simply about how ‘best’ to dispose of a decommissioned oil platform. For them the proposed solution was clear-cut since scientific analysis showed deep sea dumping to be the ‘environmentally preferred’ option. The fact that Greenpeace, which led the campaign against deep sea disposal, later admitted it had mistakenly provided incorrect estimates of the extent of toxic substances involved, simply meant that Greenpeace had ‘got it wrong’ and hence its opposition to the disposal choice was shown to be flawed.

At a deeper level – more than one rationality?

However, the dispute can be seen to have far deeper roots deriving from the ‘rationalities’ or ‘worldviews’ of the protagonists. For Greenpeace, the existence of an oil rig containing toxic materials and requiring disposal, is a ‘symptom’ of a world on a flawed development path. Greenpeace’s long-term key campaigns have been to argue the need to shift the world’s economies from their dependence on fossil fuels to a more sustainable base relying on renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind), and secondly to move industry away from discharge of harmful wastes into the world’s ecosystems and towards clean production processes. Judged against this rationality, the actual quantity of toxic substances to be dumped is not critical to their argument. Greenpeace said that:

The basic argument … 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 into the deep oceans … as opposed to reducing waste, and recycling, treating or containing harmful materials. (Peter Melchett, Executive Director, Greenpeace, UK, 1995)

(Harding, 1998, p. 2)

In this section we wanted to focus on particular aspects of learning. The questions we wanted to investigate were what exactly was learnt, by whom and how? What had helped this learning and what hadn’t? So we didn’t exactly start writing this section without bias and assumptions! – and soon ran into difficulties in trying to answer these questions. I (Chris) was particularly interested in one stage of the process – the dialogue process facilitated by an independent charity, the Environment Council, at Shell’s request. Details of their meetings were posted on web pages giving a seemingly very open account with a full range of individuals’ comments and reactions, several very appreciative of the opportunity but also critical of the process. I was struck by the apparent attempts to take account of what I interpreted as ‘requisite variety’, even though as far as I was aware, their facilitation processes were not informed by theory related to VS-method. Seminars were held in four different countries and to me the process seemed quite participative, even though issues regarding who was invited and how and who was and was not represented had clearly surfaced.

Individuals involved in these seminars had made comments about their own learning and deepening understanding of the issues and it is interesting to note in the Environment Council’s summary of the seminars the following statement:

Participants tended to express one of the following perspectives:

  • Values and emotions should be incorporated into the decision making process and information on technical details was not necessary.
  • Technical issues needed to be understood in great detail before any judgements could be made.
  • Shell should undertake all the technical decision making but leave the value judgements up to the politicians, who as elected representatives should be able to account for public acceptability.

It seemed clear to me that differences in values and beliefs had been discussed and recognised. But I also began to recognise that my own discussions with facilitators working at the Environment Council had left me with some very positive impressions regarding their facilitation skills and their awareness of the issues of participation in decision making which may well have influenced how I read the reports.

I then read Tony Rice and Paula Owen’s interpretation of events, in their book Decommissioning the Brent Spar (1999). They presented some quite different perspectives, for instance questioning whether the seminars were really part of a dialogue or an effective public relations exercise. Their analysis suggested that Shell was certainly more interested in rescuing its public image than changing its environmental policies.

I was at this stage beginning to question the significance of the apparent learning that had taken place at individual, organisational and societal levels. What was learnt and by whom still remained a largely unanswered question, unsurprisingly perhaps as the learning process cannot be evaluated out of context and without clear evaluation criteria. Box 4 gives another extract from Ronnie Harding’s analysis of the situation.

Box 4 Lessons learnt or not?

Failure to establish a transparent (open) decision-making process, to involve a cross-section of the public in discussions from an early stage and to recognise how the ground has shifted in terms of environmental concern among the general public, caused the proponents, the government and many professionals involved in the Brent Spar saga great anguish. Continued failure to read the ‘bigger picture’ beyond what scientists and engineers often consider to be ‘black and white’, ‘indisputable evidence’, is likely to lead to continued disputes and confrontation whenever major projects, developments and new technologies are proposed.

Indeed an editorial in The Times (22 June 1995) at the time of the Brent Spar issue concluded:

Greenpeace’s latest victory is no victory for the North Sea. But there is a lesson for governments to draw from this bruising. However technical an issue – and decommissioning the detritus of the North Sea oil industry is highly technical – it is not enough to have sound strategies. They must be more effectively and openly explained. Where public trust is lacking expect the Greenpeaces of the world to storm the field.

(Harding, 1998, pp. 2–3)

Clearly an improved understanding of the different perceptions that people have, and of the different values they place on natural and human resources is a vital requirement for professionals contributing to environmental decision making. In our view only then will they be able to help resolve the complex, social and environmental challenges we face today in a manner that minimises unproductive conflict.

There are many other interpretations of the events associated with this story. For example one commentator on an earlier draft of this material felt that many statements, particularly in the press, reinforced the myth that there was a ‘scientific answer’ to Brent Spar. Another pointed out that Shell had, up to the Brent Spar episode, congratulated itself on being sensitive to and in touch with ‘green issues’. It had numerous publications promoting a view of Shell as an environmentally responsible corporation. According to the commentator the problem was the prevailing worldview within Shell.

Activity 3 What was learnt?

From the material presented here, and from any experience or engagement with the Brent Spar episode, what, if anything, was learnt by any of the participants in your opinion? Do you think that the cause of sustainable development has been furthered or impaired in the process?

Despite the cynicism evident in many comments on the episode, it seems to me that Brent Spar has changed the way that Shell, the government and Greenpeace approach such issues. I will now make my own values quite clear by summarising my position.

For Shell and other large multinational corporations the loss of public image is not a trivial matter and will affect the way that decisions are made within the company. Brent Spar has demonstrated that dumping at sea is not acceptable to the European public, regardless of the technical arguments. Thus a public value has percolated into a large multinational – and frankly I am not concerned whether that happened through the consultation seminars or by the PR department throwing a fit about the damage to the company’s image.

Similarly government has discovered that technical arguments are not an adequate basis for decisions in this domain. The significance of public opinion is bread and butter to politicians, but not, in my experience, to civil servants who advise ministers on such matters. Again it does not concern me whether civil servants have broadened their perspective on the issue due to publicity about the incident, the consultation process or by being hauled over the coals by their political masters. There has been a shift, and one that encompasses a larger perspective on such matters.

For Greenpeace this was clearly a public relations success in terms of the particular issue. As such, it is one they are likely to try to repeat in other arenas with other issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMO) release. Public relations and attention of the media have been used effectively in many campaigns. It seems to me a suitable tool for progressing greater global consciousness. In one sense it is the ultimate vehicle for fostering widespread participation in the issues. But use of the media is also a potentially dangerous tool for two reasons. First, from the campaigner’s perspective, it can backfire. For instance, in the Brent Spar campaign Greenpeace clearly experienced what they saw as a ‘Government counter-attack’ (Rose 1998). Rice and Owen (1999) also suggest that the UK television media appear to be less willing to accept and transmit Greenpeace images uncritically that they were before Brent Spar. Secondly, the media can also be manipulated or used by some for their own agendas, that may or may not serve the interests of other stakeholders.

SAQ 5 Applying systems tools or techniques to Brent Spar

Write a sentence or two on what you might expect to emerge from the application of each of the following systems tools or techniques to the Brent Spar case study.

  1. variety management
  2. unfolding complexity (recursion and levels)
  3. root definition of an issue based system
  4. conceptual model of the root definition above
  5. influence diagram
  6. systems map
  7. detailed modelling of Brent Spar disposal.


  1. Variety management

    I could not see a direct application of this tool to the Brent Spar that would yield any insight or useful perspective.

  2. Unfolding complexity (recursion and levels)

    The system in focus is the Brent Spar oil platform. Going up levels takes in oil production in the North Sea, oil production and exploration in general. It could also follow a different recursive chain and include the North Sea as an ecology. Going down levels focuses on (some possible) systems within Brent Spar – the oil pumping system, the gas system, the life support systems and so on. The insight I gained from this was that it was likely that Shell had the Brent Spar in a different recursive chain – they seemed to have missed the dumping anything in the North Sea as a key issue.

  3. Root definition of an issue based system

    With hindsight it is easy to suggest that conceptualising a detailed root definition of the system to dispose of Brent Spar may have thrown up the issue of ‘in a manner acceptable to public opinion and the green lobby’. But there is evidence that this had been included in the original plans and had simply been misjudged.

  4. Conceptual model of the root definition in question 3 above

    This might have been more useful because, assuming that the root definition includes reference to public opinion and the green lobby, it would have thrown up the activities of ‘finding out’ what public opinion and the green lobby thought about the issue.

  5. Influence diagram

    I could not think of anything that this technique would be likely to illuminate in this case. This is not to say that it may not be a useful tool to explore this situation. Perhaps if I drew a systems map first and developed it from there I might be able to see how I could use it.

  6. Systems map

    It is possible that a systems map might have alerted the decision makers to the significance of dumping anything in the North Sea and may have caused them to enquire further about public opinion.

  7. Detailed modelling of Brent Spar disposal

    There is evidence that quite a lot of detailed modelling of the disposal methods did take place. It was on this basis that the government and Shell agreed that dumping at sea was the best environmental solution. However the model was not made public and Greenpeace did not have access to the correct data, so in fact the model did not assist resolve the issue – but had it been used participatively it could have helped.

The Brent Spar vignette provides a springboard into the next section of the unit, which is particularly concerned with how many different stakeholders might participate in the design of learning systems for ‘managing sustainable development’.

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