New Zealand and Finland are practically on opposite sides of the planet, and quite a long way away from Alaska. Yet, they are the two starting points for Shell’s fleet of rented and commissioned ships that are preparing to get together and start drilling for oil in the Arctic this summer.
I’m standing in one of the ports of Helsinki, Finland, to witness 20 Greenpeace Nordic activists boarding ice-breakers Fennica and Nordica. Banners haven been put on Fennica’s crane and on the bow of Nordica. Some of the activists ascend the drawbridge dressed in overalls and carrying buckets, brooms and shovels as they were about to clean up the deck. What is this about?
Fennica and Nordica, two Finnish icebreakers whose main task is to secure shipping in the Baltic Sea, have been leased out to Shell for the summer seasons of 2012, 2013 and 2014 to help Shell drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. The operation is unprecedented and risky. Shell is the first Big Oil company starting the rush for Arctic oil for real. The risk of an oil spill is higher in the Arctic because of floating icebergs, encroaching ice and extreme weather events. If there is a real spill, the impacts will be disastrous.
Greenpeace activists occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker in Helsinki as it prepared to sail for the Arctic (C) GREENPEACE
In their oil spill response plan, Shell claims they could recover up to 90 per cent of leaked oil in the Arctic. In reality, there are no means to get anywhere near that. Shell has developed a mechanism to cap a leaking oil well but it has not been tested in Arctic conditions. Similar technique did not work in the Gulf of Mexico. Conventional methods to clean up oil will be crippled if there is ice or slushy water, a normal condition in the Arctic even during the summer seasons.
If oil ends up on ice, the best known method to remove it to brush it off with a broom and shovel, Brooms and shovels are given today to the crews of Fennica and Nordica to remind them of the risks their employer, Arctia Shipping, is taking when starting their cooperation with Shell. If an oil spill happens, the crew should be prepared to use their tools feverishly and for a very long time.
In the Gulf Of Mexico spill, thousands of vessels and tens of thousands of people were mobilized for the clean-up. Yet they could only recover 3 per cent of the leaked oil. There are no chances to mobilize an effort of that scale in the Arctic. Shell has only a few support vessels for the operation and US Coast Guard has almost no operational power in the area. There are no roads connecting nearby towns and ports to the rest of the country. The crews of Fennica and Nordica will be on their own, supposed to prevent what could be one of the worst environmental disasters mankind has witnessed.
Finland and Sweden are Arctic states with no coast line connected to the Arctic Ocean. As members of the Arctic Council, they could stand for the protection of the Arctic as one of the most pristine and fragile ecosystems on the earth and a vital cooler of the planet. Instead, they see the Arctic rush as a way to benefit from contracts with oil companies.
More than 250,000 people have already sent a letter to Shell, telling the company to end their Arctic destruction. With our brooms and shovels, we hope Arctia Shipping will get the message too and the crews will never have to use these tools in a desperate effort to save what can be saved of the Arctic ecosystem. You can join us here.