Ahead of December’s Climate Change Summit, Sue Beenstock discovers
that, despite building dialogue with oil companies, pressure groups are
not prepared to take the heat off industry.
When it comes to dealing with environmental pressure groups, BP is
always happy to talk. ’We will be open and interactive,’ says press
office manager and the chief executive’s spokesman Roddy Kennedy.
Unfortunately when it comes to talking to PR Week, Mr Kennedy is less
friendly. ’I’ve nothing to say,’ he says.
Still, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), the World Wide Fund for
Nature (WWF) and other non-government organisations (NGOs) support
Kennedy’s claim that BP is willing to listen and debate. Indeed, they say
BP is far better than other oil companies, such as Shell and Esso (owned
by the US giant, Exxon) in recognising the validity of their message on
climate change and holding constructive dialogue.
Earlier this month, BP’s chief executive, John Browne, addressed
Greenpeace’s annual business conference, joking that it was the first time
BP had occupied a Greenpeace platform. His presence was perhaps the most
significant element of the proceedings, since the speech itself contained
nothing new. But the importance of Browne’s re-acknowledgment that, ’there
is now an effective consensus that there is a discernible human influence
on the climate and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and
the increase in temperature’ cannot be underestimated. Many oil companies
continue to claim that science proves no link, indeed while Browne was
speaking to Greenpeace, Exxon’s boss was delivering a speech in Beijing in
which he stuck to the ’science proves nothing’ line and told China to rely
on fossil fuels to build its wealth.
Such talk continues to bring out the aggression in most NGOs, a stance
confirmed by a Shell insider: ’Guerilla policy advocates, like Greenpeace
can still find us wanting because we’re so Neanderthal in the way we
work,’ he says. ’Although we meet at chief executive level about twice a
year, and there’s plenty of correspondence, it’s still confrontational
and aggressive ... on their side.’
But according to Steve Robinson, CEO of The Environment Council, a charity
which works as an honest broker between industrial and environmental
groups, the adversarial relationship between energy company and green
campaigner is no longer the norm.
’It’s just dawning on the energy industry that it must be proactive.
The ’decide-announce-defend’ approach to a challenge can be horrendously
costly when it goes wrong,’ he says. Brent Spar is his classic example of
what happens when the traditional approach backfires.
’If a company is making strategic choices, it has to engage with a wide
number of people, all interested parties, to find out what is feasible and
acceptable. Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s
legitimate.’ If Shell had involved environmentalists at an early stage in
its decommissioning decisions, Robinson believes it would have saved
Electricity deregulation means that from next April households will be
able to choose their electricity provider, a move which energy companies
and environmentalists have seized as an opportunity to go green. Surveys
by the hydroelectric company Scottish Hydro, proved that its customers
identified it with environmental sustainability, although in reality it
had to admit its environmental credentials were not a priority. So it
approached WWF, whose Scottish education programme it was already
sponsoring, to ask for advice.
’We suggested they get an environmental management systems expert in to
come up with changes, and we will vet the results,’ says Martin Mathers,
WWF climate change policy officer in Scotland. ’Money-wise their
investment is pounds 20,000, laughable on turnover of pounds 25 million,
but we’re looking five to ten years ahead, that’s an encouraging
For other companies, approaching an NGO can be entering unknown
This is where The Environment Council can help, offering a neutral
framework for discussions. Eastern Group, an electricity company based in
Ipswich, recognised its need to be seen to act in a more sustainable way,
and invited The Environment Council to broker discussions with FoE. The
result is a green tariff launched on 23 October, whereby customers can opt
to pay an extra five to ten per cent on top of their bill which goes into
a trust fund dedicated to renewable energy investment.
This kind of dialogue has always been central to FoE’s approach. ’We’ve
succeeded in getting a reputation for dialogue, so progressive companies
will come to us,’ says Dr Patrick Green, FoE’s senior energy
But local groups and local action are still the central planks of FoE’s
work and a traditional postcard-writing campaign is currently underway in
which consumers sign cards addressed to electricity companies asking what
they’re doing about sustainable energy.
It was no coincidence that FoE encouraged Eastern Group to announce its
tariff on the day that the final round of talks opened before the Climate
Change Summit in Kyoto in December, and the day before the Commonwealth
Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh, in which climate was top of the
agenda. It was a neat way, according to Dr Green, of tying in local and
global climate campaigns and maintaining momentum on discussions in an
attempt to get something out of the Kyoto talks.
’If we’ve learnt anything from previous summits, it’s that we have to
build momentum,’ says Dr Green, ’otherwise it just ends up being an
international jamboree, with the US, the biggest polluter, holding us all
to ransom by refusing to budge on carbon dioxide targets.’
Dr Green insists that FoE’s success in lobbying the UK Government and the
EU, leafleting, motivating public letter writing and getting images on to
front pages and TV worldwide, have helped put climate on the international
agenda and more importantly, got the US public to realise they too have a
part to play in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
Climate change is such a huge issue and the oil companies such giants,
that it makes sense for the diverse NGOs to pool information and
Last week, for instance, WWF put pounds 1,000 towards an FoE-produced
leaflet to be circulated at Kyoto. And during the Brent Spar debacle,
WWF’s education department acted as broker between Greenpeace and Shell,
persuading both to contribute to an education pack on the issue, helping
to break the deadlock.
Many environmentalists are convinced this mature, proactive approach has
paid dividends, particularly where BP is concerned. Earlier this year BP
made bold predictions about the growth of its solar division, putting
itself at the forefront of British solar investment, and severing itself
from other oil producers in the Global Climate Coalition, who are neither
committing themselves to alternative energy, nor admitting the global
damage of fossil fuels.
Greenpeace takes some of the credit for this shift. Deputy executive
director of Greenpeace UK, Chris Rose, points out the work his
organisation has done to encourage the Government to create a market in
’Certainly this sort of marketing side of operations is an increased part
of what we do,’ he says.
’But dialogue isn’t what we’re all about, we are always trying to go
further, and get what the environment really needs via direct action.’
He appreciates that BP is willing to listen to environmentalists, a result
he says of its long involvement in exploration and tendency to appoint
geologists in key positions. But as a direct action movement, Greenpeace
will only ever have an arm’s length relationship with the energy
companies, leaving the more conservative greens to get closer. One such
body is WWF, and for Mathers the increasing seriousness with which the
green lobby is treated by BP offers a glimmer of hope.
’When I first started 15 years ago, we were talking to the person with
’environment’ in their job title, right down the chain of command. But in
the last five years that’s changed, so that now we talk to the people at
the top. They’ve recognised that environmental issues cover the whole
spectrum of BP’s operations.’ Now they just need the other oil companies
to join the trend.
BRENT SPAR: FEUD OVER A PLATFORM IN A FJORD
Somewhere in a Norwegian fjord is the rusting carcass of the most famous
oil platform in the world, Brent Spar. The size of a football pitch, you
might think it was tricky to dispose of. In fact nothing could have been
simpler or cheaper. Shell did its sums, worked out the disposal plan,
followed the rule book and found that for pounds 4.7 million and with
the thumbs up from the Conservative government, its aged oil platform
could be towed to a deep sea rubbish dump and forgotten about.
The debacle that followed, in which Shell insisted it would be dumping the
Spar until two hours before it was due to set off, proved a steep learning
curve for the communications team. In June 1995 Shell backed down. ’We
just said ’Enough. This is all heat and light - just hot air and no
illumination,’’ says Fran Morrison, communication manager at Shell UK.
The Environment Council was asked to draw up a list of interested people,
ranging from ecology groups to industrialists and consumer experts, who
deserved to have a say in the consultative process.
Two years on, the independent marine risk assessor, Det Norsk Veritas,
charged with producing a shortlist from decommissioning contractors, has
drawn up six options. Each cost pounds 250,000 to produce, with on-shore
decommissioning charges ranging from pounds 11.4million to pounds 48
According to Greenpeace’s Chris Rose: ’We’ve had two or three meetings on
the spar this week alone, but they miss the fundamental point about sea
dumping.’ Another Greenpeace oil campaigner Simon Reddy, appreciates
Shell’s inclusion of ’stakeholders’ at every key juncture: ’It’s been very
enlightening and helped us understand how Shell arrived at this purely
economic decision,’ he says. ’Unfortunately, they included the original
dumping option all the way along in the consultative process, it’s still
in the final shortlist, and that just wasn’t acceptable so it made
dialogue very difficult. It stifled debate because we wanted to look at
the best onshore option and keeping this pro-dumping mentality inhibited
that dialogue. It’s taken a while for Shell to get its head round the
fact that sea dumping isn’t an option. The new Government has said it
has a presumption against sea dumping. So while we’re trying to move on
to the whole decommissioning issue, they’re still lagging behind.’
There are about 450 oil platforms in the North Atlantic and for
Greenpeace, the disposal of the Brent Spar was always about precedent.
Shell will submit its preferred option to the Government at the end of