Dr George Watkins

On 4 June this year, 15 Greenpeace activists, incongruously clad in City suits and carrying briefcases and The Financial Times, walked into Conoco’s London office and manacled themselves to the furniture. We sought to play it low key and as friendly as circumstances allowed. A small group of our senior people tried to talk to […]

On 4 June this year, 15 Greenpeace activists, incongruously clad in City suits and carrying briefcases and The Financial Times, walked into Conoco’s London office and manacled themselves to the furniture.

We sought to play it low key and as friendly as circumstances allowed. A small group of our senior people tried to talk to them above the din of the whale noises emanating from tape recorders in their briefcases, but they didn’t want to talk. After a while, we had little option but to ask the police to help us remove them.

Resistance was passive as the police cut them free and carried them out; but there was nothing passive about Greenpeace’s demands that we should stop exploring west of Shetland or about the way in which they disseminated the message: they said it in interviews, letters, news releases; they produced TV clips and radio tapes; they said it to Europe, to America and on the Internet; they said it on banners draped from our roof – powerful messages carried in the papers the next day.

Did we refute the claims? No we did not. We did not face up directly and openly to the demands of the Greenpeace organisation. We made no attempt to answer their questions and join the debate.

Just what is this Greenpeace demand? It is that all exploration and development to the west of the UK should cease, and that this is needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. What do other people think of this?

The Financial Times called it ‘intellectually risible’. The Royal Institute of International Affairs said that it won’t work and could actually increase carbon dioxide. The prime minister said he is concerned about climate change but stopping Atlantic production is not the answer. And even Greenpeace has said it: the organisation’s booklet admits there is no prospect of the conditions that would lead to an international lowering of demand for oil and gas. In other words, the Atlantic Margin will have no impact on carbon dioxide emissions because the product will simply be substituted from some other area of the world.

So, powerful arguments have been substantiated and supported from every direction by the most impeccable of sources, but has this been effectively and publicly employed by industry in challenging Greenpeace?

We set out our case and have it beautifully printed and circulated in full colour, but we rarely state and answer the views of our principal protagonist, never mind mention its name. No wonder the public is confused: the Greenpeace view is slipping into acceptability by default.

I have a great deal of time for Greenpeace and what it stands for. It has excellent people who are creative, knowledgeable and caring about the world around them and they have a vision about the future.

We share many of the same goals. The differences are not fundamental: they are about degree, about timing, about what is reasonable and realistic, and what is not.

I hope that one day soon Greenpeace and the industry will find it possible to sit down and talk seriously and responsibly about these things that divide us because, frankly, we need their fresh thinking and their enthusiasm. Together we’d make a great team.

Several important things need to happen before we can have a working relationship of trust and respect that produces results. Frankness -even bluntness – will be an essential ingredient of that relationship.

In that spirit I would like to suggest a few of the things that have to happen.

Industry must have much greater confidence in its own policies and in its inherent sense of responsibility and respect for the environment in which it operates. We must stop running scared and tweaking policies at every snap of green fingers.

We must stop pretending Greenpeace doesn’t exist on the present ludicrous pretext that we might give them the oxygen of publicity. Greenpeace knows more about publicity than we ever will. But it doesn’t know more about the oil industry and it doesn’t have a monopoly on care and concern.

Greenpeace is an international organisation with significant status and backing. It is big – with more members than any political party in Europe. Nor is it the poor, hand-to-mouth organisation it seeks to portray. Just like the rest of us, it does not enjoy infallibility.

Some people disapprove of our industry. We should make no apologies. The global population has almost quadrupled over the past century – yet the century has seen a remarkable rise in the standards of living of many people thanks to increasing supplies of reliable, convenient and safe energy.

As populations, economic development and human aspirations expand, the need for energy will increase. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing alternatives is the right long-term goal we should be working towards, but maintaining standards in the West and improving them in the developing world will not be possible without fossil fuels for many years.

These are some of the things industry must do. Greenpeace must do a lot of things too. This is what I would say to them:

{{* Clean up your act. Don’t behave irresponsibly.* Don’t be reckless. Don’t mess about with boats or drilling rigs or abseil from office roofs.* Don’t take cheap shots. Try to be fair and accurate in what you say.* Keep the bigger picture in mind. A well-argued campaign with realistic goals is likely to win much broader backing than you already have.}}

Greenpeace will win lasting support when it does well, and lose support when its demands are seen as unreasonable and unrealistic. That is a code of behaviour that generally works for the rest of us and one that is going to be essential if Greenpeace is to have a relationship of trust with industry, governments and others.

This is an extract from a speech presented at the ‘New Government, New Prospects?’ conference on the future of the UK oil and gas industry in London last week. Dr Watkins is chairman and managing director of Conoco (UK).