Our brave activists have now delayed the giant oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen for over 80 hours, first by occupying the rig and now by occupying the drill site with the ship Esperanza. And as long as they stay there, Statoil can’t drill.
With a short drilling 'window' before the ocean freezes over again, the clock is ticking. Arctic oil drilling is uber-extreme on a good day, and Statoil likes pushing the boundaries to prove its technical capacity. This time they've overstretched.
And there’s an interesting subplot to this story, and it concerns those little pieces of cloth that we call flags. The Esperanza is Dutch-flagged, which makes sense because Greenpeace International is based in the Netherlands.
However Statoil's rig is flagged to the Marshall Islands, a tiny country located in the northern Pacific Ocean. So what on earth has a small Pacific island got to do with this?
Foreign flagging of vessels is actually quite common. It allows companies like Transocean (which owns the rig) to use loopholes and strict confidentiality agreements, avoid environmental responsibilities, reduce costs, and dodge taxes. You only need to stick to the rules of the flag state, and in the Marshall Islands these rules are pretty weak.
The Deepwater Horizon rig which blew up in 2010 the Gulf of Mexico was also flagged to the Marshall Islands. It was also owned by Transocean. The US Coast Guard's investigation into the spill found two parties with oil on their hands: Transocean, the oil rig's owner, and the Republic of Marshall Islands shipping registry, which was responsible for overseeing safety on the rig.
This flag business already caused a big problem for Statoil earlier this week. While the rig is in international waters, the Coastguard needs to ask the flag state if it can board the rig and remove peaceful protestors. The Marshall Islands are not easy to look up in a phone book, and it took some time before the coastguard got permission to board the rig and remove our climbers.
In the Marshall Islands, I suspect there is some pretty intense debate going on behind closed doors about this little flag. This is after all a 'drowning state', a real victim of climate change. Some time in the next few decades the capital, indeed perhaps the whole country, will become uninhabitable as it sinks beneath the waves. This will be long after the people have left, as it will soon be impossible to grow food as sea water affects the groundwater.
The Marshall Islands have been really strong advocates for urgent action to reduce emissions. Makes sense when your children won't have a home. But taking the dollar from Transocean today has exposed a nasty little crack in their logic. Tony de Brun, it’s not worth it!
The Marshall Islands could always remove their flag, forcing Transocean to find another 'flag of convenience'. That's what illegal fishing boat operators do when they are being chased. I’d love to see an oil company adopt the same tactics, a final statement of moral bankruptcy.
Sigh. These struggles just go on and on. Right now the Norwegian government is trying to impose a 'safety zone' around the drilling site, which is not just illegal (they have to give 'reasonable notice'), but stupid: there is no rig there, just our beloved Esperanza!
We will keep fighting: this little episode is far from over. The Arctic is worth protecting. As an Inuit leader said so poetically: "We have a right to be cold!"
You can help protect that right, protect the arctic and protect Bear Island. Tell Statoil's biggest shareholder, the Norwegian government, to stop these reckless plans before it's too late.
Ana Mules is a Communications Officer at Greenpeace New Zealand.