Activists occupy oil rig in fight to prevent Arctic drilling

(from the Guardian online) The fight to stop the global oil industry exploring the pristine deep waters of the Arctic has been dubbed the new cold war, and early last Friday it escalated as environmental activists from 12 countries occupied the world’s second largest rig on its way from Turkey to Greenland to drill among the icebergs.

The protesters found the 52,000-tonne semi-submersible platform Leiv Eiriksson at around midnight, steaming due west at a stately six knots in the sea of Marmara, heading for the Dardanelle straits and the open Mediterranean. It took four more hours for Greenpeace to bring in its inflatables and a further 50 minutes in the choppy moonlit sea to intercept it.

Even from three miles away, the Chinese-built mobile rig, which specialises in drilling in extreme environments, looks huge. From 100ft away in the pale dawn light it is a 15-storey industrial castle, bristling with cranes, derricks, gangways, chains, spars, girders, pipes, helipads and radar. Just 10 years old, it is already rusting and its paintwork is streaked from years of drilling in harsh west African, north Atlantic and Asian waters.

For Greenpeace and others the risk of a devastating spill is too great, raising the spectre of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 when more than 1m barrels of oil were spilt, and the $40bn disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year. “Any Arctic spill would be very difficult, if not impossible, to contain and clean up. The company has not released a detailed spill response plan for the Arctic waters. Its latest environmental impact assessment says it has not been possible to model oil behaviour on ice. Failing to consider the impact of ice on a potential Arctic oil spill renders the EIA [environmental impact assessment] unfit for purpose,” said Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe.Other leading environment groups, including the respected US thinktank Pew, plus NGOs Oceana and WWF, have all said that the oil industry is not prepared for a major pollution incident.

According to Greepeace, a blowout of the kind that BP experienced in the Gulf of Mexico last year would be even more devastating off Greenland, where whales, polar bear, seals and fish live in abundance. A relief well might not be completed in the same drilling season, leading to oil gushing out unchecked for up to two years. Oil would probably become trapped under the ice, making it impossible to remove.

“This is the most controversial rig in the world because it is the only one destined to begin risky offshore drilling in the very deep waters of the Arctic this year. We have stopped it because it’s blazing a trail for other major oil companies and sparking the start of a dangerous new Arctic oil rush.”

Cairn, the only company to drill deep wells offshore in the Arctic this year, says it has prepared comprehensive oil spill plans, and has put up a bond of $2bn.  It plans to drill four exploratory wells to depths of around 5,000ft, the deepest ever attempted in the Arctic.

As sea ice disappears and open water seasons last longer, the High North – that vast area above the Arctic circle – has become the oil industry’s new frontier, offering potentially billions of barrels of oil from deep offshore wells in return for the huge technical, safety and financial risks.

But conservationists increasingly argue it is only a matter of time before a catastrophic spill devastates some of the least polluted waters in the world.

Activists are now expected to dog the progress of the slow-moving Leiv Eiriksson as it passes Greece, Italy, France and Spain on its passage through the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. It is scheduled to stop in Britain to pick up supplies before the last leg of its journey to Greenland in June.

Twelve hours after boarding the Leiv Eiriksson, the 11 activists who had occupied a gangway 80 ft above the water were forced down by a gale as the vessel entered Greek waters. No arrests were made.

More here from the UK Guardian on the Greenpeace campaign to slow the Leiv Eiriksson, and more here of the likely consequences of a possible oil spill in Arctic waters.