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Shell Backs Down, Won't Sink Oil Rig in Atlantic

June 21, 1995|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Shell Oil Co., facing political criticism and threats of consumer boycotts on the Continent, reversed itself at the last minute Tuesday and said it would not sink an obsolete oil storage rig in the Atlantic.

Shell was scheduled Tuesday to lower the 450-foot-tall storage platform into a deep trench 180 miles off Scotland. The company asserted this would be the cheapest, most sound way to dispose of the rig from the North Sea oil field.

But critics assailed the plan, saying it threatened the ocean environment. The company appeared to give in to a threatened European boycott of Shell products and criticism from Continental environment ministers.

In Britain, Prime Minister John Major was said to be angry that Shell reversed course--after he had put his own prestige on the line to back company claims that sinking the "Brent Spar" rig would do the least damage to the environment.

Chris Fay, the company's chairman in Britain, said Shell changed its stance after officials decided the firm's position had become "untenable."

The 14,500-ton Brent Spar was scheduled to be sunk in a 6,000-foot-deep trench in the Atlantic; that plan was slowed by the Greenpeace environmental group, which had a helicopter lift four of its members onto the rig's platform in recent days.

Fay said Shell was unswayed by Greenpeace activities, though commentators credited the group with playing a key role in changing the company's plans. In recent days, many protests were held at Shell Oil gasoline stations in Europe.

Greenpeace claimed that the oil sludge in the rig would pollute the ocean. Shell said Greenpeace was exaggerating the amount and toxicity of residual material aboard the rig--and said there were greater dangers in bringing the structure ashore for dismantling.

Now Shell will have to seek British government permission to break up Brent Spar on land. This also will require a site to which the huge rig can be towed and where it can be dismantled without causing pollution.

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