The lady doth protest

Materials World magazine
2 Nov 2013

The right to peaceful protest is one of the essential tenets of a robust democracy, and together with the right to free speech should be fiercely defended so that ordinary citizens such as you and me can voice our concerns and keep our political masters in check.

Here in the UK we have a long history of political, and in particular environmental, protest. Most major infrastructure development attracts protest of some sort, whether it be a new road, power station, high speed railway, wind farm or drilling site. As a professional engineer, I have never had much cause to protest at such development (although I did write to the Council once to object to a planning application for a new office development). Despite this rather brazen show of NIMBYism, I generally believe that most development, particularly in transport, utilities and energy provision, is for the common good. In any case, I’m not really convinced that such protest really makes a substantial difference. Think Heathrow Terminal 5, or the A30 bypass at Fairmile in Devon made famous by the charismatic if somewhat eccentric eco-protester known as Swampy, or the new West Burton gas fired power station in Nottinghamshire. After all, it is a brave town councillor or planning minister who turns down such an application, in the face of much needed jobs and investment, and in times of ever increasing energy prices.

Of course, there is a fine line between peaceful, non-interventionist protest and so-called direct action. So what is the difference? Direct actions are primarily defined by their confrontational, disruptive and often illegal nature. It's not surprising then that direct action tends to get a lot more media coverage and generally sympathetic public support.

A case in point is the ongoing Greenpeace campaign against Arctic oil and gas exploration, and the arrest by the Russian authorities of 30 Greenpeace activists for attempting to board the production and drilling platform Prirazlomnaya. Opinions on the two sides are as polarised as the location. On the one hand is a desire to stop any oil extraction from what is environmentally a very fragile area. On the other is a plan to develop a significant new hydrocarbon resource for an economy heavily reliant on the petrodollar. Whichever side of the debate you might sit on, few would deny that video footage of protestors being hosed down and shot at grabs worldwide attention, and brings the issue into public debate. Which was, of course, the whole point.

I remember a similar protest (without the guns) on the Brent Spar oil storage facility in the 1990s. Owner and operator, Shell, had planned to dispose of the redundant structure by towing it out to the Atlantic and sinking it. Appalled by the precedent that this would set, Greenpeace occupied the facility and organised a widespread boycott of Shell petrol stations. In the face of this, Shell backed down and towed the Spar to a Norwegian fjord, where it was later cut up and used as a breakwater. There is now a general agreement that all North Sea oil and gas platforms will be returned onshore for decommissioning. Somewhat ironically, this has led to greater investment in field life extension, as it has become more economic than decommissioning. End of field life for the Prirazlomnaya is many decades away, but when it does come, the structure will certainly not be sunk. The water depth is only 30 metres, and the structure already rests on the seabed, like a giant upturned sandcastle bucket.