Greenland, 24th May 2011– Two Greenpeace ships are in a tense stand-off with Danish navy commandos protecting an oil drilling operation in the freezing seas off Greenland.
The environmental campaigners have 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.
Greenpeace today 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.
Greenpeace International oil campaigner Ben Ayliffe is on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, within sight of the rig and its escort - a 120 metre Thetis-class NATO warship. He said: “The risks involved in Arctic deep water drilling make working in the Gulf of Mexico look like a walk in the park. 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 are reckless in the extreme and should be abandoned, and their rig should leave the Arctic immediately.”
The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise is also on the scene.
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 260km2 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.
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• According to a Foreign Office briefing: "The impact of a spill in the Arctic would be proportionally higher due to the lower temperatures and (in winter) lack of sunlight that inhibits oil-eating bacteria (which played a large role in cleaning up the Macondo spill). The Arctic ecosystem is particularly vulnerable, and the 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. A situation compounded by the response lag resulting from the vast distances between the points of habitation and at certain times, winter ice. Following its spill, the US has suspended plans to issue further exploration licences in its Arctic waters."
• Another document describes offshore Arctic drilling as “at the extremes of current technology and logistics.”
• The UK government’s concerns are mirrored by experts in oil-spill response who spoke to a Canadian Parliamentary inquiry last year, Ron Bowden, of Aqua-Guard Spill Response noted that, “there is really no solution or method today that we’re aware of that can actually recover [spilt] oil from the Arctic.”
• In 2010, Cairn stressed that its drillings off Greenland were in relatively shallow waters of around 300m, and so in no way comparable to the deep water Macondo well that ruptured causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, however, Cairn will drill at far greater depths than before. With the exception of two potential drill sites, all its wells will be at depths of between 900m and 1,530m.
• The increased depth of water makes the impact of a potential blow-out much greater and significantly extends the time required for drilling a relief well. In its modeling for 2010, Cairn has estimated that only 5,000 barrels of oil could leak from its wells every day, one sixth of the estimated release rate for oil drilling in Norway and one tenth of the release rate during Deepwater Horizon. Cairn in 2010 calculated it would take 37 days to drill a relief well. For 2011 it has used a similar figure, without considering the vast differences in drilling depths between this year and last.
• Cairn’s latest environmental impact assessment fails to even analyse what would happen if oil leaked under the Arctic ice, even though it admits that spewing oil would likely end up reaching under the frozen northern sea. Cairn continues to refuse to publish a comprehensive plan for how it would deal with a spill from the platform, and has just 14 vessels capable of reacting to a spill (BP's response in the Gulf of Mexico required 6,500 vessels and employed over 50,000 people).
• The U.S. government calculates that the chance of a major spill occurring over the lifetime of a single block of leases in its own Arctic waters is greater than 20% - while those odds increase with every extra license granted. If the Cairn operation strikes oil the number of wells sunk off Greenland would increase dramatically.
• Drilling west of Greenland is limited to a 'summer window'. After this date, sea-ice becomes too thick to allow vessels to operate and relief wells cannot be drilled effectively. Even in the window Cairn has to tow icebergs out of the rig's path or use water cannons to divert them. If the icebergs are too large the company has pledged to move the rig itself to avoid a collision.
• Cairn is run by Sir Bill Gammell, a childhood friend of both Tony Blair and George W Bush. When Bush first met Blair his opening words were: 'I hear you know my friend Bill Gammell.' This year Gammell sold Cairn's Indian operation for $9.2bn to fund the Greenland project, describing the Arctic as his 'Plan A, B and C.'
• Baffin Bay is home to 80 to 90% of the world's Narwhals. The region is also home to blue whales, polar bears, seals, sharks and many migratory birds.
• Cairn's Greenland project is representative of a new approach to modern oil exploration, where self-styled 'wildcat' companies take on huge financial and technical risks in the hope of hitting a previously undiscovered reservoir of oil. The company's failure to provide a comprehensive spill response plan raises serious questions about Cairn’s ability to deal with an accident in one of the most hostile environments on earth. Dealing with a spill in the Arctic would be nigh-on impossible