LONDON -- Where does a company dump a used, 65,000-ton, 450-foot-tall oil rig?
Apparently, not in the North Atlantic.
Yesterday, Shell U.K. Ltd. was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn at sea, canceling plans to dump the oil platform Brent Spar in deep North Atlantic waters only hours after two more Greenpeace protesters were dramatically dropped onto the rig.
The abrupt turnaround came after six weeks of bad publicity, a consumer boycott of Shell gas stations in Germany and sniping from European governmental ministers opposed to the plan.
"What the Royal Dutch/Shell Group has had to do is to react to its failure to persuade government ministers in certain European countries to adhere to agreed policies and procedures that they are party to," Shell U.K. Chairman Dr. Chris Fay said at a London news conference.
"If that's an embarrassment, then, yes, I'm embarrassed," he added.
Instead of dumping the rig as planned today, the company will seek a license from Britain for onshore disposal. The change is expected to cost Shell tens of millions of dollars. The environmental impact of towing the rig to shore for disposal is uncertain.
The battle over the Brent Spar also could affect plans for 15 offshore North Sea rigs scheduled to be disposed of in the next decade.
Shell's reversal outraged the British government, which supported the original disposal plan that was hammered out after three years of negotiations and consultations.
Monday, British Prime Minister John Major supported the company's right to dump the rig, saying it was the "right way" to get rid of it. Yesterday, just hours before Shell's announcement, he labeled as "incredible" the idea that the rig could be taken ashore and broken up.
Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade, attacked Shell for the switch, telling Britain's Channel 4 News, "They have caved in under pressure. . . . I think they should have kept their nerve and done what they believed was right."
But earlier yesterday, the Independent newspaper of London published a leaked government report that stated scientists opposed plans to sink the platform.
"The bottom line is that the waste cannot be dumped at sea. The only option is to take ashore and treat," wrote Dr. John Campbell, director of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's fisheries laboratory.
Dr. Fay said protests by the environmental pressure group Greenpeace had nothing to do with abandoning the deep-water ditching.
"I can say quite unequivocally it has nothing to do with the four Greenpeace people sitting on the Brent Spar," he said.
"We have spent quite a bit of time rescuing Greenpeace people in and around the Spar in recent weeks, and if you don't believe we take safety in the widest sense of the word, you don't understand," he said.
But Greenpeace activists, who originally seized the rig May 1 and had four protesters aboard yesterday, were celebrating a triumph.
In stormy seas and heavy winds, eluding water cannons, the group managed to follow a course of action that was hatched on two beer mats in a smoky Amsterdam bar. They successfully airlifted protesters onto the unsteady, potentially hazardous rig.
It was the Greenpeace activism, combined with a slick media campaign, that ignited widespread picketing and boycotts of Shell stations in Germany, where one station was firebombed. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was moved to confront Mr. Major at the Group of Seven meeting in Canada last week to protest Britain's agreement for the dumping.
"I am delighted that Shell has reacted to public opinion," Greenpeace U.K.'s executive director, Lord Melchett, said last night.
"I think it was down to people throughout Europe, indeed through the world . . . expressing their views in all sorts of different ways . . . and to actually have people on board the Brent Spar highlighting and bearing witness to something that was clearly wrong for the environment," he told Channel 4 News.
He admitted that disposing of the Brent Spar on shore "is going to be difficult and complicated, there is no getting away from it."
Still, Greenpeace savored the victory.
"It's not a victory against Shell or the British government," said Ulrich Jurgens, campaign director for Greenpeace International. "It's a victory for the sea."