Abandoned Hope?

Article by Tom Baxter

DURING a recent walk on the island of Arran, I came across the abandoned car in the photo above. It had clearly been there for a long time because as you can see,  nature is taking its course. It reminded me of Greenpeace’s comments in the 1990s on Shell’s disposal plans for its Brent Spar offshore oil facility.

At the time, Greenpeace campaigner Simon Reddy said of Shell’s plans to sink the disused facility in the North Sea: “If I was to dump a car in a wood, moss would grow on it, and if I was lucky, a bird may even nest in it. But this is not justification to fill our forests with disused cars.”

On the face of it, it was a good comparison and one the public could readily rally around.

So, imagine I were a Greenpeace campaigner and said to Arran council that it has to move this car. Here is how I suspect the situation would play out: like most councils, Arran is cash-strapped and can identify more important and effective ways of spending money to protect the environment. The council pragmatically decides it is best to leave the car where it is, as it is doing no harm. Indeed, it is becoming part of the local flora and fauna. It also considers the damage that would be done by driving a pick-up truck over the overgrown path and ripping the car from its current position.

The campaigner in me argues: “But this is a point of principle!”

The council argues back that following the principle is a very poor use of its budget, and declines the proposal.

From cars to offshore disposal

The same situation is happening today with decommissioned infrastructure removal in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). The UK taxpayer is set to pay around £25bn (US$31.6bn) to support the decommissioning of offshore architecture, and this is against a background of a growing body of evidence that removal will, in many instances, harm the ecosystem that has developed around offshore structures. Removal is mandated by marine legislation, particularly OSPAR. Although well intentioned, it is my contention that the legislation is leading to a very poor outcome for the UK taxpayer. It would be better to make the offshore installations and pipelines clean and safe, and use the money saved to provide much more environmental benefit by investing the savings (multiple £billions) in green energy.   

But no one on the council government is saying: "let’s be pragmatic here, is this a good use of taxpayers’ money, is it not better to leave in place?" No one in government is saying: "Could we use the money saved to provide other environmental benefits?" No one in government is saying: "Let’s relook at this and take the evidence to OSPAR to argue a rule change."

Returning to Simon Reddy’s comparison, it is clearly highly emotive. Dumping implies an ill-considered, irresponsible act. A decision to leave decommissioned oil and gas infrastructure in place would be taken by the council on a case-by-case, evidence-led basis. And it would not be dumping, it would be leaving something there that has become part of the marine ecosystem. “Fill our forests” was also misleading. If all UKCS architecture were to be left in place it would only cover a fraction of the UKCS. In the case of Brent Spar it would like dropping a nail into Loch Ness.

Come on Greenpeace

Financial Times, June 2016

Although Greenpeace’s comments were made two decades ago, they remain the same today.

It is interesting to note that the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) is arguing   for an evidence-based assessment of the environmental benefits of leave-in-place. So I say, come on Greenpeace be like your colleagues in the SWT and support an evidence-based review rather than a blanket point of principle.

Article by Tom Baxter

Senior Fellow, Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering, University of Aberdeen

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