I’m on board the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise, about to cross into an area of the Arctic that Russian authorities don’t want us to see. They’ve contravened international law by denying our ship access to an important sea route and tried to shut us out - tried to shut you out.
But with the world watching and millions of Arctic defenders at our sides, we are defying the Russian authorities, claiming our rights to bear witness and to protest, and entering the Kara Sea.
We know roughly what’s behind the curtain:
- Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft. A company few people outside Russia have heard of, but which is now one of the world’s largest oil companies and one of the world’s largest source of oil spills on land.
- American oil giant Exxon. Famous for the devastating Exxon Valdez spill, this profit hungry monster has partnered with Rosneft to take advantage of weak legislation and a lack of accountability in Russian waters.
- The Russian Arctic National Park. A critical habitat for narwhals, bowhead whales, polar bears, and walruses, and now also the site of an illegal drilling lease held by Rosneft and jointly explored with Exxon.
- Vessels carrying out preparations for these companies, mapping oil deposits with sound blasts loud enough to kill a whale and testing the seabed by driving heavy metal cylinders into the ocean floor.
It’s a nightmare, and if things don’t change it can only get worse.
But there’s a difference between knowing something’s happening and seeing it with your own eyes. The Russian government and the oil companies know that just as well as we do; and we believe that’s why they’re trying to keep us out.
Yesterday as we approached Novaya Zemlya, the high north archipelago that separates the Barents Sea from the Kara Sea, schools of white-beaked dolphins swam and played in the bow-wave of our ship against a backdrop of rainbows and snow-capped mountains. We saw whales surfacing in the distance, puffins and gulls flying overhead, and a spectacular Arctic sunrise.
If this is the outskirts, I can only imagine what magic awaits within the bounds of the Arctic National Park. What magic and what darkness.
Within that park, formally recognised by the Russian government as ecologically sensitive and in need of protection, are narwhals, bowhead whales, dolphins, polar bears, walruses, and countless other Arctic species.
If an oil spill happens in this area - that supposed sanctuary for creatures that cannot withstand an onslaught of industrial activity - it will devastate this place in an instant. Despite Russian laws prohibiting industrial activity in this area, the government has granted illegal drilling licenses to Rosneft and Exxon that overlap with the park's boundaries; and those companies haven’t hesitated one bit to take up those licenses and begin making preparations to drill.
Oil companies think they can operate in remote places like the Russian Arctic without scrutiny. They think they can gamble with the future of places like this one and condemn every person on the planet to dangerous climate change without obstacle or consequence.
And if we remained silent, they’d be right. But three and a half million people are refusing to remain silent. The Arctic Sunrise will cross into the Kara sea despite the Russian government’s attempts to keep us out. And alongside activists and supporters around the world, we will continue to confront reckless Arctic oil operations wherever we find them.
Christy Ferguson is a Greenpeace Arctic Campaigner aboard the Arctic Sunrise.