SYDNEY — TO Greenpeace officials it seemed like the perfect way to protest both the use of oil and danger to the marine environment. So, late last March, Greenpeace loaded its activists onto its command ship, the Rainbow Warrior, and headed for the Bass Straits off Australia.
Activists in rubber boats from the Rainbow Warrior then tried to disrupt the long cable trailing behind a seismic vessel searching for oil for BHP Petroleum, a subsidiary of BHP Ltd., Australia's largest corporation. Greenpeace complained the area was a calving ground for southern right whales and any future exploration might disturb the whales.
As BHP has discovered, Greenpeace has now targeted oil companies as fair game for its aggressive brand of environmental activism. Paul Gilding, executive director of Greenpeace Australia Ltd., says the move is part of a worldwide strategy to tackle the elements of global warming.
``Ending the use of fossil fuels is part of the process as is encouraging the use of alternatives,'' Mr. Gilding says. Around the world, Greenpeace is trying to find other ways to make the oil companies squirm. Greenpeace and other environmentalists are meeting in Washington this week to plan their strategy to oppose offshore oil drilling.
Some of the protests are likely to resemble Greenpeace's 1990 attempt to encircle an Exxon oil platform off the California coast. (Exxon got an injunction to halt the protest before Greenpeace really got wet.) The environmental group estimates it has mounted two to three major oil drilling protests each year for the past eight years.
The oil companies are taking Greenpeace seriously.
``We take all environmental groups seriously,'' says Carol Austin, a spokesperson for BHP.
In fact, after the Bass Straits incident, BHP sued Greenpeace Australia for the added expense of taking the ship back to port, for its legal fees, for alleged damages to the seismic ship's cable, and for punitive damages.
The case quickly attracted media attention when Labor Sen. Peter Walsh, a former Cabinet minister, said he hoped Greenpeace would go bankrupt.
According to BHP, the damages came to about A$80,000 (US$103,000) or the cost of two days' charter. The company that owned the charter vessel asked for an additional A$10,000 for a damaged cable. Then last week BHP decided to drop the lawsuit.
``The sums involved were relatively small in comparison to the legal cost of the case,'' Ms. Austin says.
At a Wednesday press conference, Gilding wondered what really caused BHP to drop the lawsuit.
``The hairy-chested corporate gorillas at BHP Petroleum were itching for a fight,'' Gilding said.
Further confrontations are likely. Australia is now opening up huge areas for offshore oil exploration as its oil reserves dwindle. Gilding says Greenpeace will be actively involved in trying to stop the exploration.
When Greenpeace ventures out on the high seas in Australia, it is likely to find oil companies scrambling to the courthouse to get injunctions. This was BHP's strategy. A federal judge in Melbourne ruled that Greenpeace had to remain three miles from the seismic ship and could not interfere with the exploration activities. Greenpeace complains this is a violation of its civil rights.
Gilding says the Greenpeace aim is to turn around public opinion in two to three years. ``There certainly isn't time for a slow change,'' he adds.
If Greenpeace wants to turn public opinion, Austin wonders why Greenpeace is going after the oil industry.
``There is no indication the population wants to reduce its use of motor fuel, heating oil, or industrial oil. Greenpeace's views are not shared by the Australian population,'' she says. ``They are tackling the wrong end - the supply side - when they should be tackling the demand side.''
Phil Grose, a spokesman for Caltex, a major petroleum marketing company, compares the Greenpeace goal to ``changing the whole philosophy of the world. Modern man survives on fossil fuels.''