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.

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

itself millions.

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

solar power.

’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.


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

the year.

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