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David, Goliath meet in ocean battle

One of the humiliations that tipped the balance in leading John Major to resign as leader of the British Conservative Party last week was a story about David and Goliath.

Goliath is Europe's biggest company, Royal Dutch Shell, a multinational oil group with revenues of nearly $125-billion dollars last year, employing 106,000 people in more than 100 countries.

David is Greenpeace, an environmental organization with a revenue of $131-million, 0.001 percent of Shell's, and about 1,000 employees in 30 countries.

The struggle between them came to a climax last Tuesday, and Major, Goliath's handler in this case, was both wounded and humiliated when he fell.

The contest was over an oil platform named Brent Spar anchored in the North Sea, where for 19 years Shell had used it as a huge oil storage depot.

The trouble arose when it came time to dispose of it. Shell decided that the best way, and maybe not incidentally the cheapest, would be to sink it 16,000 feet deep and let the North Atlantic worry about 130 tons of sludge still inside it.

Shell's British subsidiary spent the better part of three years convincing the British government that this would be the best and least environmentally damaging course _ but not Greenpeace, which began waving its arms, trying and sometimes succeeding to board the platform to stop the whole operation.

As the British prime minister, the buck stopped with John Major. As the clamor against sinking the platform grew, he resolutely defended the decision. When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, spurred by the environmentalist uproar at home, asked him personally to cancel British permission 10 days ago, Major flatly refused.

Last Tuesday, he was still declaring in the House of Commons for the umpteenth time that the solution had his "full support."

So it was with consternation that he learned, a few hours later, that without warning Royal Dutch Shell itself had called off the sinking, caving in to boycotts and pressure from Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

Major was left in the lurch. And if the giant 450-foot, 14,500-ton oil storage depot was not to be sunk, Major might be.

Taken with all the other troubles that have beset him and his Conservative Party government this year, this month and even this week, including the revolt against his leadership, Brent Spar underlined the fact that two years away from the next elections, Major was in danger of becoming a lame duck.

Brent Spar was not, of course, the only or even the main reason that led Major to stun Britain, his Conservative Party and his critics inside it to resign as its leader and call for party elections to vindicate him.

But Brent Spar was one of the straws that finally broke the back of his patience with the tormentors in the party.

Maybe even more significantly, it was a sign of the times that the Brent Spar issue was decided not by the British government and prime minister, nor Europe's largest company, but by events in Germany, the largest country, where ecological concerns have moved front and center since the Greens scored their first electoral breakthroughs in the early 1980s.

That Kohl and his ministers were forced to denounce Shell's plans for the Brent Spar by ordinary Germans who demonstrated a depth of popular concern that no mainstream German party, hypocritically or not, can ignore.

Greenpeace's call for boycott against Shell cost the company 25 to 30 percent of its sales in its largest market in the week before Shell's capitulation. Shell stations were bombed and shot at. What concern for the environment failed to stop, money did.

As in the Bible, David defeated Goliath.

Brent Spar became a symbol that campaigns for preserving the ozone layer and the rain forests have sometimes lacked. Kohl was able to shrug off a French decision to resume nuclear tests in the South Pacific but not Shell's plans for Brent Spar in the North Atlantic, where around 200 other oil platforms will have to be disposed of in the next 20 years.

Brent Spar is a warning to all Goliaths.

As for Major, he will have to steel himself again for the expression on Kohl's face when they meet this week at the European Union summit in Cannes.