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In today’s bulletin, Charlie compares the recent BP oil rig protests on the Paul B Loyd Jr, to those which occurred in 1995 on the Brent Spar. What can we learn from these stories and how can we prepare?

On Sunday, I noticed the news story of two Greenpeace protesters who climbed aboard the BP oil rig in Cromarty Firth, the Paul B Loyd Jr, just as it was about to be moved to start drilling operations in the North Sea. They were part of a number of protesters who were trying to prevent the rig leaving, and draw attention to climate change and what they believe BP’s role in it is. The rig is owned by Transocean and is leased to BP.

I thought it would be interesting to contrast this protest with the one which occurred on the Brent Spar in 1995. The Brent Spar was a North Sea oil storage and tanker loading buoy, operated by Shell. When it came to the end of its useful life, Shell had the responsibility for decommissioning it. After looking at many options, they decided to sink it in deep water in the Atlantic. Shell felt this was the safest way to dispose of it, and it was also the cheapest. They got all the relevant UK permissions to allow ‘deep sea disposal’ and started the process of decommissioning. Greenpeace, who were running a campaign against ocean dumping, became aware of the plan to sink the Brent Spar and on the 30th April 1995, occupied the rig and started a media campaign against its dumping. Shell eventually got permission to evict these protesters, but whilst this was happening, Greenpeace started a large campaign in the countries surrounding the North Sea. This resulted in public anger and a boycott of Shell petrol stations, which was especially strong in Germany. On the 20th June, under substantial public pressure, Shell announced that they had changed their minds and the rig would no longer be sunk at sea.

What are the differences between these two protests and what lessons can we learn? In the case of Brent Spar, the protest was very fixed on one goal and the end game was focused and possible, to prevent the rig being disposed at sea. While in the case of Paul B Loyd Jr, the protest is about climate change. Yes, it draws attention to BP’s role in climate change and their ongoing search for and production of oil, but their focus is on a very wide issue and it makes it much less likely that their protest will actually lead to any change.

The protest this week has quickly faded from the news and I had difficulty trying to find more information on the progress of the incident. However, in regard to Brent Spar, there were 25 protesters, journalists and photographers on board, so they were able to produce good quality video and still photographs to send to the onshore journalists. This makes for a good story and is more likely to get on to TV news stations. Today, protests are streamed live and can gather large audiences. They can also be a trap for large companies. Protesters will often try and provoke an overreaction from large companies, in order to portray themselves as victims, and at the same time they will ensure that footage is captured so they can use this against the company. As business continuity advisers for our organisation, we need to make sure that if staff have a responsibility to remove protesters that they do so legally, and that they are aware they may be provoked into action or violence, which can be filmed and used by the protesters.

My final point is about the protection of our organisations’ assets. I don’t know whether there was any indication that Greenpeace were going to target this specific rig for a protest, but I think you need to have systems in place for monitoring potential protests against your assets and organisation. If a protest group is targeting a particular campaign where your organisation could be a target, I think you should conduct a risk assessment to look at your vulnerabilities. In this case, BP should have considered that they may be a target when they started to move the rig out to sea. If they knew they might be a target, they could have put on extra guards to prevent any protesters getting onto the rig and any disruption. The cost per day of hiring the rig from Transocean is £140,000, so just saving one day of disruption would have paid for a lot of guards.

Protests can cause massive disruption to an organisation’s operations and to its reputation. As business continuity practitioners, we should have plans in place to deal with the crisis element of the protest. I think we also need to think about what processes we have in place to ensure we are aware of protests against us or campaigns we could be caught up in, and if we can identify these then we can take early steps to limit disruption to our organisation.

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