Climbers scale rig in freezing seas as energy giants eye Arctic oil rush
Baffin Bay, Greenland - Campaigners have evaded a huge military security operation to scale a controversial oil rig in the freezing seas off Greenland. At dawn this morning four expert climbers in inflatable speedboats dodged Danish Navy commandos before climbing up the inside of the rig and hanging from it in tents suspended from ropes, halting its drilling operation (video and stills available).
The climbers have enough supplies to occupy the hanging tents for several days. If they succeed in stopping drilling for just a short time then the operators, Britain’s Cairn Energy, will struggle to meet a tight deadline to complete the exploration before winter ice conditions force it to abandon the search for oil off Greenland until next year.
Sim McKenna from the United States, one of the campaigners hanging fifteen metres above the bitterly cold Arctic ocean, said: “We’ve got to keep the energy companies out of the Arctic and kick our addiction to oil, that’s why we’re going to stop this rig from drilling for as long as we can. The BP Gulf oil disaster showed us it’s time to go beyond oil. The drilling rig we’re hanging off could spark an Arctic oil rush, one that would pose a huge threat to the climate and put this fragile environment at risk.”
McKenna, who had been helping with the Gulf clean-up operation before joining the Greenpeace ship the Esperanza in the Arctic, continued: “Right now this platform is the most important oil rig in the world. If we can stop them striking oil here in the next few weeks we’ll hold back the oil giants for at least another year, hopefully gaining enough time for a global ban on dangerous deepwater drilling projects like this to be enacted.”
A Danish Thetis-class 120m warship, commandos in speed boats and a flotilla of police boats have been shadowing the Esperanza for the last nine days. The rig has been forced to stop drilling because any breach of the 500m security zone around it results in a routine shutdown. It is currently drilling in volcanic rock, having failed to strike oil, and is due to move soon to a new drill site 100km away. The campaigners hope today’s occupation will delay the move or even cause it to be cancelled.
Last week Cairn announced it had struck gas at a site a few miles from the occupied rig, but not oil. The fragile environment west of Disko Island is known as Iceberg Alley due to the plentiful icebergs and tough conditions. This has deterred oil companies from attempting exploration there in recent years, but the world’s oil giants are watching the Cairn project with great interest. If the Edinburgh-based company strikes oil, analysts expect a new Arctic oil rush, with Exxon, Chevron and other energy giants already buying up licenses to drill in the area and making preparations to move in.
Jon Burgwald, a Greenpeace campaigner onboard the Esperanza, which is about a kilometre from the occupied platform, said: “Instead of letting the oil companies drill for the last drops of oil in pristine places like the Arctic, our governments should be pushing the development of the clean energy technologies we need to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on dirty fuels. We already have the tools we need to go beyond oil, all that’s missing is the determination to make it happen quickly. That’s why we have to stop this rig from drilling for as long as we can. We can’t let the oil giants take us all in the wrong direction by opening up the Arctic seas to a new oil rush.”
The crew of the Esperanza includes Waldemar Wichmann, the Captain from Argentina; AnnkatrinSchneider, deck hand from Germany; Ben Stewart and Leila Deen from the UK; Jon Burgwaldfrom Denmark; Victor Rask from Sweden; Mateusz Emeschajmer from Poland; Timo Puohiniemifrom Finland; Danielle, Second Mate from Australia; Mannas, Chief Engineer from Holland; andSim McKenna from the USA.
- 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. The well being drilled by Cairn is at a depth of 300-500 metres, while the moratorium introduced by President Barack Obama after the Deepwater Horizon disaster applies to wells deeper than 152 metres. Cairn has refused 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 more than 3000 vessels).
- Drilling west of Greenland is limited to a ‘summer window’ between July and early October. After this date, sea-ice becomes too thick to allow vessels to operate and relief wells cannot be drilled effectively. The area which contains the occupied rig is known locally as ‘iceberg alley’. Cairn is having 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. Last month a 260km2 ice island broke off the Petermann glacier north of Disko island and will eventually make its way south throughNares Strait into Baffin Bay and the Labrador Current before reaching the area where drilling is taking place.
- 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.” Last week 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, cormorants, kittiwakes and numerous other 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 complete lack of in-house infrastructure and 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.
- According to Gammell, the company seeks ‘big acreage’ to give it a wide area for exploration, in contrast to the smaller parcels that are routinely found in the North Sea for example. The dangers of this approach become clear in the event of a spill, where the operation’s remote location means there is little infrastructure already in place to begin any clean up operation.