Right now, the 30 activists and crew from the Greenpeace International ship Arctic Sunrise are in custody in Murmansk. They have been under armed guard since last Thursday when the Russian authorities forced their way onto our ship and took the crew and activists captive.
They did so following a peaceful direct action the day before against an oil platform, Prirazlomnaya, that belongs to the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
You may be wondering why the team on the Arctic Sunrise were prepared to take direct action to stop Gazprom? Well here is the answer:
1. Prirazlomnaya is the first platform to start oil production in the ice covered Arctic
Energy giant Gazprom is Russia's biggest company, accounting for 10% of the country's GDP, and it is set to play a key role in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to consolidate Russia's position as a global energy leader. Arctic oil drilling is central to that strategy and Gazprom's oil platform Prirazlomnaya will be the first ever to begin commercial drilling operations in ice infested waters above the Arctic Circle. Gazprom’s giant $4bn Prirazlomnaya platform could supply oil directly to the global market by early 2014, becoming the first offshore rig to start pumping oil from underneath the ice covered waters of the Arctic.
2. The Prirazlomnaya is not safe
The Prirazlomnaya has been constructed using pieces of decommissioned North Sea rigs and has sat rusting in a Murmansk shipyard for years. It is not exactly a state-of-the-art oil driller and given that it will operate year-round in the remote Pechora Sea, where ice is present for nearly two-thirds of the year and temperatures can drop as low as -50°C, it is no exaggeration to say that the Prirazlomnaja is simply not safe.
This video is an edit of some material workers from Prirazlomnaya have put on Youtube. It's a scary watch.
3. Gazprom will not make their oil spill response plan public
The Arctic Council, of which Russia is a member, has agreed that oil spill response plans must be made public. Reading the company's full oil spill response plan is the only way society can assess the precise risks of a damaging spill. Despite that, Gazprom has only made a short summary of the Prirazlomnaya's oil spill response plan publicly available, whilst the full version can only be viewed in the company's offices under very strict restrictions. However, even the summary plan makes clear that Gazprom would be completely unable to deal with an accident in the far north. The company claims it "pays great attention to preventive environmental protection measures" but according to the official plans its worst-case scenario is only for an oil spill of around 10,000 tons (about 73,000 barrels). The Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed nearly 5 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, whilst the Prirazlomnaya itself can store up to 650,000 barrels of oil.
4. Oil spills are inevitable
Statistically, oil spills happen frequently. In the Arctic the risk of a spill is even higher. Icy waters, icebergs and the extreme weather make the drilling conditions much worse and much more risky. Everyone in the industry and related authorities know this. Only last month the US and Canadian coast guards orchestrated the very first joint offshore oil spill response test in the Northwest passage that - like the North East passage Russia controls - until a few years back was protected by the ice. So they staged a cleanup response trial last month, and let's just say it didn't go so smoothly. "A Coast Guard skimming system was successfully deployed from a Canadian vessel participating in the drill, but bad weather also prevented deployment of a large ship emergency towing system provided by the state of Alaska," Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow told the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
5. It would be close to impossible to clean up an Arctic oil spill
The near-impossibility of cleaning up an Arctic oil spill is well-documented. The Pew Environment Group recently examined oil spill response plans for operations in the Arctic and warned that the oil industry is "not prepared for the Arctic, the spill plans are thoroughly inadequate" adding that Arctic spill plans "underestimate the probability and consequence of catastrophic blowouts". Analysis for WWF found that industry proposals for assessing the risks of a spill in the Arctic were inaccurate, describing it as "Imagineering, not engineering".
Oil recovery is near impossible in ice as standard spill technologies like booms become useless in thick ice. And even without ice in the waters, the extreme weather conditions make oil spill response very difficult. The US and Canadian coast guard authorities learned this the hard way when they experimented last month and were only capable of deploying a skimming system, but not the crucial large ship emergency towing system. In 2011, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp told Congress that his agency was totally unprepared for a BP-type spill in the Arctic. "If this were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we'd have nothing," Papp said. "We're starting from ground zero today." Having followed the area intensely for the last couple of years, I would say that they are still at ground zero.
It isn't just the ice and the extreme weather conditionsthat would make it impossible to clean up a spill, but also the remote location.For a spill at Prirazlomnayja, much of the response equipment will be housed 1000km away in Murmansk, which means the company would not be able to mount a serious accident response for days.
6. Prirazlomnaya is right next to wildlife reserves
The Prirazlomnoye oil field is surrounded by national parks and wildlife sanctuaries like Nenetsky and Vaygach that are home to protected and endangered species such as the Atlantic walrus. Gazprom's summary oil spill response plan suggests that walrus and bird habitats would likely be impacted from leaking oil were an accident to occur on the Prirazlomnaya, whilst Indigenous Peoples who rely on the Pechora Sea for fishing and hunting would also be affected.
7. Russia's track record of oil spills is appalling
Whole regions in Russia are so polluted by oil spills that everyday life for the residents in these places have already been changed dramatically. It is estimated that 5 million tons of oil leak from cracked wellheads, pipes and equipment throughout Russia each year. According to official data, over 500,000 tons of leaking oil seeps into the Arctic Ocean from the polluted rivers of northern Russia. Basically, Russia spills every two months the same amount of oil that the Deepwater Horizon lost at its blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico.
8. Oil must be left in the ground if we are to slash the carbon pollution that’s causing climate change
The majority of the world's proven coal, oil and gas reserves must be left in the ground, if the world is to avoid climate change at levels which would render parts of the planet uninhabitable. To be more specific, analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that more than 60% of currently proven reserves of oil should stay in the ground in order to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming. This means that extracting oil, including the oil found in the Arctic - which is both expensive and largely unproven - is extremely unlikely to be compatible with global action to limit dangerous climate change.
9. The Arctic region is fragile
The sea ice coverage in the Arctic is 30 per cent below the level of 1979 and at the same time, it has become significantly thinner, adding up to a total of 75 per cent of the volume of summer sea ice has already disappeared. These climate change impacts have put the Arctic eco systems under immense pressure.
The Arctic is a unique and fragile environment, with a number of sea mammasl and other species living only - or almost only - in the Arctic. For example, polar bears, narwhals and walrus. The Arctic needs protection so it can cope with these changes caused by climate change and not to be put under the added pressure of oil production and oil spills.
10. When states and companies fail, people take over
When neither companies nor politicians live up to their responsibility to the society, people have to stand up and be brave. We need to stand together and oppose this sort of wrong doing. It is our democratic responsibility to challenge world leaders when they are so wrong. More than 4 million people have joined the Save the Arctic movement and when Sini Saarela and Marco Weber climbed on the Prirazlomnaja to try and stop this environmental crime they did so with the support of millions of people around the planet. Together we oppose to the threat to wildlife, nature and climate that oil drilling in the Arctic involves. It's our duty to stand up against the oil industry, however powerful.
A keen ornithologist who has worked on many Greenpeace issues, Ben Ayliffe is head of the Arctic oil campaign. He lives in London and watches a lot of Arsenal matches.