"We Have to Stop the Arctic Oil Rush!"

Greenpeace climbers prevent Arctic oil drilling operation

Feature story - May 30, 2011
Environmental campaigners have scaled the world’s most controversial oil rig and are hanging from the underside in an Arctic survival pod with enough food and water to stay there for ten days. Their action will prevent the rig starting dangerous deep water drilling 100 miles west of the Greenland coast.

Climber pod used to stop drilling operation

Greenpeace activists ready their Arctic survival pod that was then attached to the underside of the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson oil rig. The pod contains enough food for climbers to stay there for ten days. Their action will prevent the rig starting dangerous deep water drilling 100 miles west of the Greenland coast. The rig is due to begin deep water oil exploration for wildcat oil company Cairn Energy, which is leading the new Arctic oil rush. © Steve Morgan / Greenpeace



At 3am local time, three expert climbers in inflatable speedboats launched from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza and scaled the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson. They avoided a Danish warship that had been shadowing the Greenpeace team for days, having been sent to keep the protesters from the rig.

The climbers set up camp a few metres from the huge drill-bit that Cairn hopes will strike oil in the coming weeks. If drilling is delayed for just a short time, Cairn could struggle to meet a tight deadline to complete the exploration before winter ice closes in, forcing it to abandon the search for another year.

Arctic pod secured on underside of Leiv Eiriksson oil rig

The Arctic survivor pod and its climbers are safely secured to the underside of the Leiv Eiriksson oil rig, operated by Carin Energy. The presence of the activists will prevent drilling in one of the most pristine and fragile natural areas in the world, home to important and vulnerable wildlife. © Steve Morgan / Greenpeace

The rig’s operators, Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy, is the only company planning to drill in the region, but if it strikes oil this summer it will spark an oil rush that would devastate the fragile Arctic environment.

25 year-old Luke is one of the climbers hanging next to the drill-bit above the freezing Arctic ocean. Speaking by satellite phone he said: "Despite the extreme waters below, we’re safe and secure. There’s no way Cairn can drill for oil while we’re hanging next to their drill-bit, and it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to remove our survival pod. To drill for oil here would be dangerous insanity. We have to stop the Arctic oil rush."

The Cairn rig was boarded by the Greenpeace team as it transited across the Davis Strait towards the Atammik drill site west of Greenland, where it plans to drill in 905m of water. The Leiv Eiriksson was just hours from reaching the site and beginning operations when the climbers boarded it and hung the 3 metre diameter pod. As long as the pod stays in place, drilling is impossible.

Greenpeace International oil campaigner Ben Ayliffe is on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, within sight of the rig and the survival pod. He said: “We boarded the rig a few hours before it was due to reach its Arctic drill site, and now it can’t start operations. We are preventing it from drilling because an oil spill up here would be nearly impossible to deal with due to the freezing conditions and remote location. A BP-style blow-out off the Greenland coast would make the Deepwater Horizon clean-up look simple.”

Greenpeace International has repeatedly asked Cairn for its emergency oil spill response plan but has been refused. That request was repeated to the rig by radio several times this week, but was ignored. The world's oil giants are watching Cairn’s rig with great interest. If it strikes oil this summer Exxon, Chevron and the other big oil companies (which have already bought up Greenland licenses) will begin drilling in the area and the Arctic oil rush will be on.

Even without an accident Cairn admits its drilling operation will result in at least 9,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals being discharged directly into the waters of the Davis Strait – including 180 tonnes of red-listed chemicals (more than all annual oil drilling operations in Norway and Denmark combined). The company admits that it would take decades before significant profits from oil exploration flow to Greenland, while Cairn’s operations pose a grave threat to Greenland’s fisheries, which represent 88% of the island’s export economy.

The area where Cairn intends to drill is known as ‘Iceberg Alley'. The company intends to tow icebergs out of the rig's path or use water cannons to divert them to avoid a collision as the rig drills for oil. If the icebergs are too large the company has admitted it will need to move the rig itself. Last year a 260km2  ice island broke off the Petermann glacier north of Iceberg Alley. The region is famous for its narwhal population.