STOCKHOLM – Global warming has ignited a rush to exploit Arctic resources – and Greenpeace is determined to thwart that stampede.
Employing the same daredevil tactics it has used against nuclear testing or commercial whaling, the environmental group is now dead-set on preventing oil companies from profiting from global warming by drilling for oil near the Arctic’s shrinking ice cap.
The campaign took off in May 2010, when oil was still gushing from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Greenpeace was startled by reports that a small Scottish energy firm was proceeding with plans to drill for oil and gas in iceberg-laden waters off western Greenland.
“It felt slightly surreal,” recalled Ben Ayliffe, now the head of Greenpeace’s campaign against oil drilling in the Arctic. “After what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, how can anyone respond to that by going to drill in similar depths in a place called Iceberg Alley?”
Greenpeace quickly arranged to get a ship to Greenland, where four activists attached themselves to a drilling rig for two days until a storm forced them to abandon the protest.
That stunt, a similar one in 2011 off Greenland and protests this month at an oil rig off northwest Russia are at the core of what Greenpeace calls “one of the defining environmental battles of our age.”
“Polar work feels like it’s going back to the early campaigns: simple message, people get it and the lines are very clearly drawn,” Ayliffe said.
From a publicity standpoint, the campaign has been successful: Greenpeace officials say since June, 1.6 million people have signed the group’s online petition urging world leaders to declare the Arctic a global sanctuary, off-limits to oil exploration and industrial fishing. Dozens of celebrities including Robert Redford, Paul McCartney and Penelope Cruz have announced their support, according to Greenpeace activist Sarah North.
“I have never experienced engaging famous people at this kind of rate and with such ease in a campaign issue,” said North, a 15-year veteran at Greenpeace.
The impact on the oil industry, however, is unclear. The Arctic is believed to hold up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Despite difficult operating conditions and high costs, the payback for Shell, Gazprom, Statoil and other companies searching for commercial quantities of hydrocarbons could be huge.
“It probably sounds a bit cynical, but if they invest billions of dollars it’s not likely they will give it up just because somebody is attacking their oil rig,” said Mikhail Babenko, an oil and gas expert at the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Program.
Greenpeace and other groups say an oil spill in the Arctic could cause irreparable damage to wildlife and marine ecosystems.
Fears that the oil industry is ill-prepared to operate in the hostile conditions of the high north were reinforced last December when a floating oil rig capsized off eastern Russia. While that accident happened outside the Arctic region, it underscored the challenges of drilling farther north, where ice ridges are yards deep and storms are frequent.
Oil industry officials say they are taking the necessary precautions to conduct safe operations in the Arctic.
In March, Shell won an injunction by a U.S. judge ordering Greenpeace to stay .6 miles away from its drilling rigs in U.S. territorial waters.
A month earlier, actress Lucy Lawless of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and six other Greenpeace activists had climbed aboard one of the drilling rigs before it left for Alaska.
Greenpeace activists also climbed aboard icebreakers contracted by Shell as they left the Baltic Sea. And the Greenpeace ship “Esperanza” is now shadowing Shell’s drilling vessels as they head north to bore exploratory wells in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
“We will follow the oil industry into the Arctic,” Ayliffe said. “This is such an important campaign. We’re not going to let them off the hook that easily.”
The Arctic campaign is part of the group’s overarching focus on climate change.
On Friday, six Greenpeace activists spent hours hanging off the side of the Prirazlomnaya platform in Russia’s Pechora Sea, attached to the rig’s mooring lines. Three days later, more than a dozen activists intercepted a ship carrying Russian oil workers to the platform and chained themselves to its anchor.