LONDON — HAVING decided not to make the ocean a dumping ground, Shell Oil is gloomily examining far more expensive ways to get rid of its massive - and massively contaminated - oil rig off the coast of Scotland.
Just hours before the oil company was due to sink its 65,000-ton Brent Spar storage platform to the seabed 1 1/2 miles below, Shell UK management backed down to international pressure, organized largely by the environmental group Greenpeace.
Greenpeace is chortling over perhaps its biggest victory in its 25-year history. Paul Horsman, who led the group's battle to prevent the Brent Spar rig with its 100 tons of poisonous sludge from being dumped at sea, speaks of "a turning point in attempts to stop huge corporations treating the ocean as a trash can."
Meanwhile, Shell and about a dozen other oil companies operating in the North Sea are scanning their profit-and-loss accounts. Chris Fay, chairman of Shell UK (a subsidary of Royal Dutch Shell), who announced that "international pressure" had forced the company to drop the offshore disposal option, is looking at a bill of $80 million to dispose of the rig on dry land. This compares with the $16 million it would have cost to carry out the original plan.
According to Brian Taylor, technical director of the UK Offshore Operators Association, Shell's decision has "enormous implications" for the oil industry.
"There are about 50 rigs and platforms due to be disposed of in the next 10 years, and we now face a precedent which will be difficult to ignore," he says. About a dozen oil companies have holdings in the North Sea, and some rigs are up to 500,000 tons. Taylor says that if all obsolete rigs have to be disposed of onshore, an entire new industry will have to be created to do the work.
BRITISH Prime Minister John Major who, hours before Shell backed down, had told Parliament he favored sinking the Brent Spar at sea, was said by officials to be "furious" at the company's readiness to "submit to blackmail."
Four days earlier at the Group of Seven summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mr. Major rejected a plea by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to urge Shell to call off the at-sea dumping.
In January Tim Eggar, Britain's energy minister, gave Shell the go-ahead for sinking the Brent Spar. In April, as Shell began fitting explosives to the rig, Greenpeace sent a team of alpine climbers to occupy it.
In Germany, Sweden, Norway, and other European countries, motorists began boycotting Shell filling stations, and gasoline sales fell up to 30 percent.
Attempts by Shell to force Greenpeace protesters to leave the rig, using high-pressure hoses, failed. Last Tuesday, as Shell attached tow lines, two more Greenpeace campaigners landed on its deck by helicopter. Ten hours later, Shell's chairman called off the planned scuttling.
Greenpeace's victory comes at a time when many observers were inclined to think that the protest group was running out of steam. After its earlier successes against whaling, and its high-profile protests against nuclear testing, it began putting emphasis on massive advertising campaigns rather than hands-on protests of the type employed on the Brent Spar.
Greenpeace also took advantage of the fact that it has offices in 30 countries, organizing ships and boarding parties from Greenpeace's office in Germany.
The British and Norwegian governments are concerned about the Brent Spar precedent not only because onshore disposal will require expensive arrangements to prevent contamination. Also, under tax rules, governments allow companies to write off up to 70 percent of decommissioning costs.
This means that indirectly taxpayers will have to stump up most of the charges.