Cairn wins injunction against Greenpeace over Arctic oil drilling protest
Date added: June 10, 2011
10.6.2011 (Financial Times)
Greenpeace fights a new cold war over oil
By Christopher Thompson in the Davis Strait
Tactics were laid out and drills rehearsed in what is called the “defining environmental battle of our age”. To lure away one of two Danish warships patrolling the area, the Esperanza’s sister ship – Arctic Sunrise – would be used as a decoy, sailing elsewhere in the middle of the night.
The next morning the world’s best-known environmental group would launch its biggest-ever seaborne non-violent direct action: the storming of the Leiv Eiriksson, a 53,000-tonne rig currently used by Cairn Energy, the FTSE 100 oil and gas explorer, to drill for oil in the sub-Arctic region’s frigid seas.
“The battle to stop Arctic oil is just beginning,” says Ben Stewart, a 37-year-old activist aboard the ship and a Greenpeace communications officer.
A week later and the mood aboard Greenpeace’s two Amsterdam-registered ships is more muted but no less defiant.
On Thursday a Dutch court granted Cairn an injunction against Greenpeace resulting in that for every day Greenpeace disrupts Cairn’s drilling operations it will incur a penalty of €50,000 ($71,700), up to a maximum of €1m.
Greenpeace campaigners have been protesting against Cairn’s exploration programme in the Arctic since the company drilled its first wells there last summer. This year Cairn is spending $600m to explore prospects with an estimated 3.2bn barrels of oil equivalent.
In little more than a week police have arrested 20 Greenpeace activists – nearly halving the ships’ respective crews – for breaching the company’s operations.
True to the popular environmentalist stereotype, seafaring hippies – socks, sandals and wild facial hair – do make up a proportion of the Greenpeace crew. But they are outnumbered by a Benetton-advert range of activists and volunteers from 14 countries and across the professional spectrum: doctors, mountain guides, engineers, a PhD student in anthropology, two cooks, a former private security guard and a professional bass guitarist.
Although the injunction was granted for considerably less than the €2m per day Cairn had argued for – the company estimates it stands to lose €4m for every day it is prevented from drilling – there is doubt as to whether the direct action part of Greenpeace’s campaign can continue.
Before activists occupied the Leiv Eiriksson – stopping drilling for 12 hours last Saturday – two colleagues had been arrested for hanging off the underside of the rig in a “survival pod” for four days.
In the cramped cabins aboard the Greenpeace ships it has been decided that the strategy – for now – will focus on what it says is Cairn’s refusal to release its full oil spill response plan, a contention that was noted by the Dutch court.
Greenpeace believes that an oil spill comparable to BP’s Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico would wreck the Arctic’s pristine environment and be impossible to effectively clean up – a scenario worsened by the fact Cairn can only operate during the region’s short summer window when ice temporarily yields to ocean.
Cairn says its response plan is not just comprehensive but is based on the most rigorous international norms. It says it cannot release details because of a “stipulation of the Greenlandic authorities, not because of any decision by Cairn”. The company adds: “Our greatest concern in conducting our lawful operations is ensuring they are done safely.”
The anti-drilling campaign has roused high emotions in Greenland, with some local press denouncing it as a violation of national sovereignty.
Wood Mackenzie, the energy and metals consultancy, estimates Greenland could have reserves of 20bn barrels of oil. Many Greenlanders hope future oil revenue could allow its fishing and tourism-dependent economy to achieve full independence from Denmark.
The oil companies make the point that exploration and production in the Arctic Circle is not new, and that several million barrels of oil are already produced each day in the area.
“Cairn and the other international companies that own licences around Greenland are doing so at the invitation of the Greenland government and people,” the company says.
But for an anti-climate change organisation such as Greenpeace, its members are united by a more general opposition to frontier oil: if the Arctic – surely the ultimate frontier – is open for business then nowhere is sacred.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” says Nick Young, 40, a shaven-headed activist from New Zealand blogging from a cabin below the Arctic Sunrise’s mess.
“Oil companies can only go into the Arctic because global warming has melted the ice cap – that should be a catalyst to a non-fossil fuel future and not an invitation to extract more oil.”
Two Danish navy ships are patrolling a 500m exclusion zone around the company’s Leiv Eiriksson rig.
Greenpeace has stationed two Amsterdam-registered ships in the area – the Arctic Sunrise and the Esperanza – which have been used to harass Cairn’s operations and drum up publicity.
“Right now we’re digesting the ruling and won’t make any snap decisions,” Ben Stewart, a Greenpeace communications officer aboard the Esperanza told the Financial Times.
The injunction comes after Cairn stopped drilling for 12 hours on Saturday when 18 protesters scaled the legs of the 53,000-tonne Leiv Eiriksson and occupied its platform in an early morning raid.
Earlier, two Greenpeace activists had been arrested after they hung in a “survival pod” strapped to the underside of the rig for four days. Though the injunction is a victory for Cairn, the fine stipulated by the judge is far less than the €2m for every day of halted drilling sought by the company when it applied for the injunction last week.
The company estimates that any drilling delays could cost it $4m per day.
Despite the injunction, Greenpeace said its “struggle to protect the Arctic” would continue. “It will happen on the high seas, in the courtroom, in the high street and the ballot box. This is far from over,” said Mr Stewart.
Greenpeace is demanding to see the Cairn’s full “oil spill response plan” – which has not been released – for use in the event of a spill such as BP’s Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Arctic is one of the last untapped hydrocarbon basins in the world with estimated reserves of 20bn barrels of oil, according to Wood Mackenzie, the consultancy.
Cairn is spending some $600m (£366m) this campaign to try to tap an estimated 3.2bn barrels of oil equivalent.