© Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Fair play to Cairn Energy. It may not be any good at finding oil under the Arctic, but its press releases are guaranteed to raise a smile. Take today’s news on its 2011 Greenland drilling programme, for example, which was supposed to be the money-spinning project that would open up the Frozen North to a new oil rush and deliver billions of barrels of black gold.

Or at least it was on paper.

Although Cairn has admitted to having spent hundreds of millions of pounds hiring huge rigs to work in some of the most inhospitable waters on the planet, all it has managed to do is drill a few dry holes. After analysing samples from two wells in the Atammik Block, the wildcat British firm has found no commercially extractable oil at all. The wells have been blocked up, abandoned and the drilling programme terminated.

Greenpeace has been running a high profile campaign to protect the Arctic from oil spills and climate change. Earlier this year two of our ships, the Esperanza and Arctic Sunrise stopped Cairn from drilling off Greenland and forced the release of the company’s secret oil spill response plan, which experts derided as completely inadequate.

You would have thought after sinking the best part of a billion dollars into this Arctic misadventure, Cairn would be a rather chastened. Au contraire. Relentlessly optimistic CEO Simon Thomson saw things very differently, claiming the non-discovery was good news because while Cairn is “yet to make a commercial discovery we remain encouraged that all of the ingredients for success are in evidence.”

Unsurprisingly investors don’t seem to have fallen for such a tall tale, in part because the small print in the announcement is so damning: Cairn may do some 3D surveys, but there will be no further exploratory drilling off Greenland for the foreseeable future. The company is now actively entering into discussions about “farm outs” of parts of its acreage to other oil companies, in what is tantamount to an acknowledgement that the costs of operating there are so astronomic that it needs partner companies to spread the risk. The days of Greenland being Cairn’s “A, B and C strategy” seem a million miles away.

The company’s share price has taken a battering and analysts have been scathing. One said, "as the 2011 Greenland programme comes to an unsuccessful conclusion, the CEO of Cairn's quotes sound a bit like George Osborne trying to put a brave face on the economic outlook… shares look mired.” Another added, "that's the end of the programme, rigs are going to disappear, and we won't see any drilling there next year."

The City, that is, London’s financial market, has responded with such dismay because Cairn’s announcement blows much of the rationale for Arctic oil drilling clean out of the water. It has spent a fortune drilling in the icy waters of the world's last great natural frontier, risking an ecological disaster in the process, but has absolutely nothing to show for it.

Cairn’s Greenland programme has been an unmitigated disaster from day one and as the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum begins negotiations with oil companies interested in drilling off the Northeast cost of Greenland, Cairn’s travails should send a clear warning that the incredible technical, economic and environmental risks of operating in the Arctic simply aren't worth it.

Instead of drilling for the last drops of oil in some of the most extreme and hostile places on the planet, we should be using less oil in the first place. Making car companies like VW build more fuel-efficient vehicles would be a very good place to start.

Ben Ayliffe is a senior polar campaigner at Greenpeace International

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