Greenpeace activists occupy oil rig in fight to prevent Arctic drilling
Environmental groups fear oil industry is not prepared for potentially catastrophic
impact of oil spills in the Arctic
After a brave fight to protect the #arctic from
dangerous #oil drilling, the occupation of oil rig
has ended, all activists safe
Greenpeace activists protesting against Arctic drilling. Photograph: Markel Redondo/Greenpeace
The fight to stop the global oil industry exploring the pristine deep waters of the Arctic has been dubbed the new cold war, and early on Friday it escalated as environmental
activists from 12 countries occupied the world’s second largest rig on its way from Turkey to Greenland to drill among the icebergs.
The protesters found the 52,000-tonne semi-submersible platform Leiv Eiriksson
at around midnight, steaming due west at a stately six knots in the sea of Marmara,
heading for the Dardanelle straits and the open Mediterranean. It took four more
hours for Greenpeace to bring in its inflatables and a further 50 minutes in the choppy moonlit sea
to intercept it.
Even from three miles away, the Chinese-built mobile rig, which specialises in
drilling in extreme environments, looks huge. From 100ft away in the pale dawn
light it is a 15-storey industrial castle, bristling with cranes, derricks, gangways,
chains, spars, girders, pipes, helipads and radar. Just 10 years old, it is already
rusting and its paintwork is streaked from years of drilling in harsh west African,
north Atlantic and Asian waters.
The Greenpeace boats approached the vessel cautiously in the three foot swell,
like fleas to the backside of an elephant. At exactly 5.31am, the 11 climbers
began to leap on to its hull and headed for a ladder. The plan was to stop the
vessel in its tracks not by taking over the bridge, but by radioing the captain
and asking politely. Fat chance.
“This is Greenpeace, this is Greenpeace. I’m informing you that we have put climbers
on your rig. I ask you stop your vessel”, asked Korol Diker, a Turkish campaigner,
on a VHF channel.
But the elephant barely registered. “I do not recognise you”, came the captain’s
cutting reply and the Leiv Eiriksson steamed on.
Undaunted, the climbers made it to a gangway 80ft over the vessel’s starboard
stern. As four crewmen peered over the side from 30ft above them, and two more
ambled over, seemingly unconcerned, the climbers made a cat’s cradle of rope to
hang banners and a tent from.
You can understand why the captain did not want to stop. The Scottish oil company
Cairn Energy has hired the Leiv Eiriksson for around $500,000 a day and the company, run
by Sir Bill Gammell, the former international rugby player, plans to spend more
than $500m (£300m) in the next few months looking for oil in some of the most
dangerous and coldest waters in the world. Any major delay could cost it millions
and set back its plans for the Arctic by a year, because drilling is only possible
in the July-October “summer window” when the ice has retreated.
Cairn, which will be the only company to drill deep wells offshore in the Arctic
this year, holds 11 licences in Baffin Bay covering over 80,000 square kilometres.
It plans to drill four exploratory wells to depths of around 5,000ft, the deepest
ever attempted in the Arctic.
It is taking the Leiv Eiriksson and the Ocean Rig Corcovado – a drill ship now
stationed near Aberdeen – as well as a fleet of backup vessels. Last year the
company claimed it had discovered a “working hydrocarbon system” or possible signs of
oil in Baffin Bay after drilling several 300ft wells. But it later said that the oil was not present in recoverable quantities.
Cairn Energy said in a statement: “Wherever it is active, Cairn seeks to operate in a safe
and prudent manner. The Greenlandic Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum has established
some of the most stringent operating regulations anywhere globally, which mirror
those applied in the Norwegian North Sea. Cairn respects the rights of individuals
and organisations to express their views in a safe manner.”
But the Arctic venture, say environmentalists, is just the start of what is planned
to be a risky offshore oil rush. Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others have licences to explore in Baffin Bay, mostly above the Arctic circle.
Others, including BP and Rosneft, plan to extract oil offshore from Siberia, Alaska and elsewhere
in the Arctic. The US government estimates there are 90bn barrels of oil, around
13% of the world’s undiscovered reserves.
But for Greenpeace and others the risk of a devastating spill is too great, raising
the spectre of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 when more than 1m barrels
of oil were spilt, and the $40bn disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year. “Any Arctic spill would be very difficult, if not impossible, to contain and
clean up. The company has not released a detailed spill response plan for the
Arctic waters. Its latest environmental impact assessment says it has not been
possible to model oil behaviour on ice. Failing to consider the impact of ice
on a potential Arctic oil spill renders the EIA [environmental impact assessment]
unfit for purpose,” said Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe.Other leading environment
groups, including the respected US thinktank Pew, plus NGOs Oceana and WWF, have all said that the oil industry is not prepared
for a major pollution incident.
“This is the most controversial rig in the world because it is the only one destined
to begin risky offshore drilling in the very deep waters of the Arctic this year.
We have stopped it because it’s blazing a trail for other major oil companies
and sparking the start of a dangerous new Arctic oil rush.”
Cairn says it has prepared comprehensive oil spill plans, and has put up a bond
Activists are now expected to dog the progress of the slow-moving Leiv Eiriksson
as it passes Greece, Italy, France and Spain on its passage through the Mediterranean
and into the Atlantic. It is scheduled to stop in Britain to pick up supplies
before the last leg of its journey to Greenland in June.
Twelve hours after boarding the Leiv Eiriksson, the 11 activists who had occupied
a gangway 80 ft above the water were forced down by a gale as the vessel entered
Greek waters. No arrests were made.
Why an oil spill in Arctic waters would be devastating
As oil companies move further north, many say it’s only a matter of time before
a big spill. The consequences would be catastrophic
by John Vidal
As sea ice disappears and open water seasons last longer, the High North – that
vast area above the Arctic circle – has become the oil industry’s new frontier, offering potentially billions of barrels of oil from
deep offshore wells in return for the huge technical, safety and financial risks.
But conservationists increasingly argue it is only a matter of time before a
catastrophic spill devastates some of the least polluted waters in the world.
So far, the industry has mostly worked onshore or in shallow, easily accessible
waters off Alaska. The worst spill was the Exxon Valdez tanker, which sank in
1989, with the effects still felt today.
But the major oil companies are all now preparing to move into areas where a
spill would not just be almost impossible to clean up, but could take years to
According to Greepeace, a blowout of the kind that BP experienced in the Gulf
of Mexico last year would be even more devastating off Greenland, where whales, polar bear, seals and fish live in abundance. A relief well might
not be completed in the same drilling season, leading to oil gushing out unchecked
for up to two years. Oil would probably become trapped under the ice, making it
impossible to remove.
No oil company is remotely prepared for a major spill in the Arctic, says WWF.
“Oil spills can be devastating to Arctic marine environments given the current lack of oil
spill response capabilities. Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated
a vast stretch of the Alaskan coast, governments and industry in the Arctic would
still be unable to effectively manage a large oil spill. The Arctic remains ill-prepared
should another spill occur,” it said in a report last year.
Many of the problems are logistical. Apart from having only a few months to do
any cleaning or remedial work, airstrips are remote, fog and snowstorms can ground
workers for weeks at a time and it would be impossible to bring many boats for
a clean-up for any time to the Arctic. Few companies have the resources to clean
up a major spill anywhere, least of all in the remote, hostile Arctic environment.
In a joint comment piece in the journal Nature, last week, former US government scientist Jeffrey Short and Oceana conservationist
Susan Murray said: “A large spill in the Arctic could not be contained or mitigated,
and we should stop pretending otherwise. Sea ice can envelop oil and transport
it considerable distances. A blowout during autumn would spill among growing ice
floes, spreading contamination further than it could be tracked and concentrating
oil in the ice holes through which marine mammals breathe.
“It is sobering that each major marine oil production area in the United States
has seen at least one catastrophic spill: the 1969 blowout of a drilling rig off
the coast of Santa Barbara, California; the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in
Alaska; and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Deteriorating weather conditions force activists to end Arctic oil rig protest
Early this morning, activists intercepted the Cairn Energy operated 53,000 tonne rig while it was on dangerous mission
to drill for oil in the Arctic. The brave climbers then scaled the rig and unfurled
a banner demanding : “Stop Arctic destruction.”
Having briefly halted the rigs progress, the climbers were prepared for a long
occupation but a Force 7 gale forced an end to the protest early this evening
while the rig was navigating the Dardanelles straits – a stretch of water that
links the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. The rig is making its as its way towards
the High North, and Greenland’s Baffin Bay.
“Cairn Energy would have liked nothing better than for this monster oil rig,
the Leiv Eiriksson, to begin to drill in the arctic unhindered and unnoticed.
Our climbers were trying to protect one of the world’s most precious natural environments
from dangerous oil drilling. This rig can and must be stopped, before it is too
late. There will be no cleaning up a Deepwater Horizon type spill in the Arctic,”
said Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe.
We have a choice. We can go beyond oil. Instead of investing trillions in dirty oil and environmental
destruction we can invest it in ramping up the efficiency of vehicles, and rolling
out new clean energy technologies.
More information from Greenpeace on Cairn and Arctic drilling: