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.
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 of $2bn.
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 even control.
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
Blogpost by Jess Miller – April 22, 2011
After bold action to stop Arctic drilling, the climbers have been forced by bad weather to end their protest onboard the world’s second largest oil rig, the Leiv Eiriksson.
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.