Arctic Stand-off: Greenpeace confronts world’s most controversial oil rig

Feature story - May 24, 2011
Greenland – A Greenpeace ship is in a tense stand-off with Danish navy commandos protecting an oil drilling operation in the freezing seas off Greenland.

Greenpeace Intercepts Leiv Eiriksson Drill Rig © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Greenpeace has been involved in a week-long search for the giant 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson – the only oil rig scheduled to begin new off-shore Arctic drilling operations this year. They found it last night 200 miles west of Greenland under escort by a Danish warship.


Also today, Greenpeace released confidential UK Foreign Office documents, obtained under Freedom of Information, showing that the British government thinks an Arctic oil spill would be all but impossible to clean up.

In Canada, Greenpeace is calling on the Harper government to disclose what, if any, specific measures Canada and Greenland have discussed to ensure that an oil spill will not affect the Canadian coast. In April, Greenpeace Canada wrote Environment Minister Peter Kent asking for information on recent conversations between officials from his ministry and Greenland authorities regarding Cairn’s drilling plans. The letter noted that various conventions and guidelines “all outline the requirement that Greenland assess the potential risk of adverse trans-boundary impacts from the proposed Cairn wells” So far Cairn and Greenland have not made an oil spill emergency plan public.

 “The Harper government has a responsibility to tell Canadians what the threats are from Cairns drilling and whether or not emergency plans exist that could deal with these threats,” said Yossi Cadan, Greenpeace Canada campaigns director. “We are concerned that Greenland and Cairn are seriously underestimating the impact of an oil spin. We want to know what the Canadian government is doing given that a spill is likely and the chances of protecting the fragile Arctic or the Canadian coastline are slim.”

Greenpeace International oil campaigner Ben Ayliffe is on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, within sight of the rig and it’s escort - a 120 metre Thetis-class NATO warship.

“The risks involved in Arctic deep-water drilling make working in the Gulf of Mexico look like a walk in the park,” said Ayliffe. “An oil spill clean-up operation here would be all but impossible, and it’s not just us saying that, that’s what the British government thinks too. Cairn Energy’s operation is reckless in the extreme and should be abandoned, and their rig should leave the Arctic immediately.”

The documents, published today on the Greenpeace website, show the UK government’s private concerns about the impact of an Arctic spill. In an email exchange British government officials told the UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne: "It is difficult to get assistance in case of pollution problems in such areas, and near impossible to make good damage caused." Another document reports: “Considerable challenges remain. The most significant of these is environmental – and the possibility of a second Gulf of Mexico type event … The Arctic ecosystem is particularly vulnerable, and emergency responses would be slower and harder than in the Gulf of Mexico due to the area’s remoteness and the difficulty of operating in sub-zero temperatures.”

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 –releasing more red-listed chemicals than all annual oil drilling operations in Norway and Denmark combined.

The area 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 pledged to move the rig itself. Last year a 260 square kilometre ice island broke off the Petermann glacier north of Iceberg Alley. The region is famous for its populations of blue whales, polar bears, seals and migratory birds.