I remember falling into the freezing Arctic waters during an action against a pirate bottom trawler in the Barents. I was wearing a survival suit, and about 8 layers of wool, which made the climb up the caving ladder onto the pirate ship from the Greenpeace inflatable difficult. Not strange that I fell in. I was fished out by the safety boat in about 15 seconds, taken back to our ship, given warm soup, a change of clothes, and put back into action.

It was a very memorable 15 seconds. The cold was shocking (even through the survival suit) the feeling of panic (even though I knew the safety boat was RIGHT there) overwhelming. 

I remember the fall as I read with horror the news about the capsizing of the Kolskaya oil rig off of Russia’s Pacific coast. I am glued to the computer screen mesmerized by the details as they emerge.  Of the 67 people on board the rig 14 are dead. 16 bodies recovered. The rest are missing. One of the survivors talked about how quickly it all went –he just got the emergency call to run up on deck to fix the life rafts, and before he had a chance to do anything the rig went over on its side, all the people falling into the 0 degree waters.

I imagine the horror, the shock, the panic, the hopelessness, the dark, the ice, the cold, the cold, the cold…my heart breaks when I think about those seamen. It breaks when I think about their families in Murmansk, when they first hear the news, when they hope against hope that just THEIR husband, or father, or son are among the survivors.

The open sea is a scary place. And it is particularly dangerous in the area where the rig was travelling and working. While technically south of the Polar circle, the conditions are Arctic – hurricane strength winds arising very quickly, hard ice conditions, huge waves.  As oil companies are going further and further into the Arctic following the melting ice cap they will be encountering these conditions all the time. Add to this the remoteness of the place, the lack of infrastructure, the difficulty for operating for rescue craft…my heart chills again, as I imagine fleets, dozens, hundreds of rigs, tug boats, support vessels, all with husbands, brothers and sons heading out into the environment that does not welcome intrusion.

Oil spill close to the Norwegian marine national park, Yttre Hvaler. To clean up oil from ice covered areas is very hard, making drilling for oil in the Arctic an extremely hazardous business.

Now we were actually lucky, yes lucky. The rig was in transit, not in operation. This means that while an incomprehensible tragedy for the people and families, the environment was spared this time. No oil was spilled, "only" blood. But as the desperate grab for the last drops of oil expands north, we will unavoidably be faced with disasters on working oil rigs and production platforms. When these happen our ability to clean up will be basically non-existent.  Last year’s Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico took place in warm waters in an area with some of the most developed and modern oil infrastructure in the world. Still we are living with the consequences of this major environmental disaster.  And in the Arctic, with much tougher climate, much colder temperatures (which hinders natural break down of oil) and an almost complete lack of clean up possibilities – well the catastrophe is guaranteed.

And I don’t want to hear that the Kolskaya accident is only due to shoddy Russian engineering or safety practices.  “This could never happen on an American or European rig”.  Kolskaya was actually built in Finland. It was designed by a Dutch company, and surveyed by a Norwegian company. It was specially built for the Arctic, for operating in the Barents and Kara seas. It was operated by a company specializing in oil drilling in the Arctic, who even includes their geographic area of operation in its name (ArktikMorNefteGazRazvedka).  They have been operating in the Arctic for some 30 years. The company is one of the main players in mapping the Russian Arctic oil and gas fields, that are now the magnet for such western players as Exxon, Statoil, Shell, BP, Total etc. 

And despite all this the rig went down. To my mind there is NOTHING that says that for example Shell, who is hoping to drill for oil north of Alaska this summer, and who by the way just suffered yet another major oil spill (2nd this year), will fare any better. Quite the contrary – I am sure if this misguided rush North goes on, we will be soon sitting in front of our screens watching empty life rafts and clumps of oil buffeted by the icy waves of the Alaskan seas as well.