On Saturday, thousands of people all around the world held vigils for the release of the “Arctic 30,” a group of Greenpeace International activists detained by Russian authorities and charged with piracy. The group comprises protesters from 18 countries, including one American, four Russians, six Britons, as well as two freelance journalists.
Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said, “Our activists have been charged with a crime that did not happen, they are accused of an imaginary offense.” They face up to 15 years in Russian prison for piracy.
On September 18th, two people were arrested following an attempt to scale the Russian oil rig Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea. They had deployed off a Greenpeace icebreaker on inflatable boats, were rammed by masked Russian security agents wielding guns and knives en route to the rig, and still two protesters managed to climb up the side. They were blown off by a water cannon and detained. This footage taken from the rig shows the Russian security personnel using the water cannon on the activists:
Then the Russian Coast Guard used an AK-47 machine gun to fire 11 warning shots across the bow of the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace icebreaker that had brought the group of 30 to the site. The Arctic Sunrise repaired back to three miles away from the oil rig, and, according to Greenpeace, outside of Russia’s territorial waters. Yet on September 19th, Russian authorities dropped 15 troops onto the Arctic Sunrise off a helicopter and seized everyone on board, towing the ship to the port city of Murmansk.
Russian authorities said that it was the protesters who endangered the oil rig’s crew, and threatened to cause an environmental disaster — not the other way around. President Vladimir Putin said it was “obvious they’re not pirates” but the border guards thought they could have been another group trying to seize the ship “under the guise of Greenpeace activists.” Putin’s Investigative Committee said the accused denied guilt and have refused to give “substantive testimony” regarding the piracy charges.
The Arctic Sunrise is registered in the Netherlands, and the Dutch government filed an “arbitral procedure” aiming to free the 30 under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans wrote to the parliament explaining the action: “The Netherlands agrees on the importance of safety at sea, but in this case we contest the lawfulness of detaining the ship and its crew.”
The Prirazlomnaya is Russia’s first offshore Arctic oil drilling rig, and expects to start producing oil later this year after nearly two years of setting up the rig. Gazprom does not have many competitors willing to risk drilling in the Arctic: a VP at Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, said he “wouldn’t give a kopec” to invest in Arctic drilling and exploration.
In August 2012, Greenpeace staged a similar protest on the same rig, unfurling a banner that read “Don’t Kill The Arctic” as 6 people hung from the side of the rig. At first, Gazprom workers were nice, talked to the protesters, and offered them soup. Eventually they started spraying cold water down on them and throwing metal, so the 6 descended and left without further incident.
The response to this year’s protest signifies the raised stakes in Russia’s Arctic oil industry, and Gazprom in particular. This offshore field was first discovered near the end of the Soviet era and since then Russia has invested $4-5 billion to develop it. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic region holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil.
The irony is that the warming Arctic, fueled by burning fossil fuels, is what is allowing Arctic nations to even begin to exploit the region as the sea ice recedes.
What’s scary about this incident is not only the harsh reaction to a peaceful protest, but how difficult it would be to clean up an oil spill. Ice floes, storms, frigid temperatures: practice oil spill responses earlier this year have been limited by weather and technology.
An offshore drilling operation off the coast of Alaska’s North Slope would be largely on its own should anything go wrong — the closest Coast Guard station is1000 miles away by air.
Late last year, an offshore oil drilling rig hurriedly returning from the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic and stopped without any help from protesters. The elements and technical failures did in the giant Kulluk rig. It ran aground near an Alaskan island and required help from the Coast Guard to get towed toward safety. In February, Shell announced it would not drill in the Arctic in 2013, and this weekend the outgoing CEO Peter Voser said the company had not decided whether to try again in 2014 or 2015.