On Friday, the last of 28 Greenpeace members and two freelance journalists left Russia after being detained by Russian authorities for 100 days. The group, coined the “Arctic 30,” were arrested following an attempt to board a Russian oil rig in an effort to prevent offshore drilling in the Arctic. Originally charged with piracy after scaling the oil rig Prirazlomnaya’s platform, the charges were subsequently reduced to hooliganism. The group members were released on bail in November but had to remain in Russia awaiting trial. Then on Christmas Day the charges against them were unexpectedly dropped.
Upon hearing that the charges were dropped, Peter Willcox, American Captain of the ship, said, “This is the day we’ve been waiting for since our ship was boarded by armed commandos more than three months ago. I’m pleased and relieved the charges have been dropped, but we should not have been charged at all. We have already discovered enough oil to dangerously heat the planet and we took action to prevent that. Giving the planet to the oil and coal companies is not an option.”
Russian security officers boarded the Greenpeace International ship Arctic Sunrise on September 19 and then towed it to the port city of Murmansk. At the time Russian authorities said the protesters were endangering the oil rig’s crew, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the guards thought it could have been another group trying to seize the ship “under the guise of Greenpeace activists.”
However, considering the Prirazlomnaya is the first offshore oil rig to begin commercial drilling operations above the Arctic circle, the stakes were probably too high for Russia to risk Greenpeace interference. The rig, which will start supplying oil to the market early next year, is owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom, a company that accounts for 10 percent of the country’s GDP, and is set to play a key role in Russia’s drive to be a global energy leader.
Russia has already invested over $4 billion in developing the oil field — which is just the tip of the iceberg of Arctic oil. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Arctic could hold 13 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil reserves. There is a new rush for fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic as climate change warms the planet opening up shipping lanes and previously inaccessible reserves of oil and gas. Burning these fuel sources will only add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, making the impacts of climate change worse. The International Energy Agency recommends that in order to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, more than 60 percent of currently proven reserves of oil should stay in the ground.
In another testament to the geopolitical gambit underway for Arctic territories and their natural resources, earlier this month Canada’s Foreign Minister announced Canada’s intentions to lay claim to the North Pole. Russia and Denmark have also made similar claims.
Anthony Perrett, a 32-year-old activist who returned home to the UK on Friday after being held in Russia, told the Guardian of his experience that “It was worth it:”
“I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail, and Christmas away from home in Russia.”
Perritt told the Guardian that the the judiciary system seemed “farcical at times.” Until being granted amnesty last week the Arctic 30 were quite unsure of their fate. The initial piracy charge could have dealt a sentence as severe as 15 years in prison.
The Amnesty Bill passed by President Putin also freed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the activist group Pussy Riot. The unexpected move has been widely viewed as an effort to improve Russia’s international image in the lead up to the winter Olympics this February in Sochi.
“I think it was the easy way out for Russia, to get rid of us before the Olympics began and before there’s a big PR pressure from Greenpeace and the rest of the world,” Alexandra Harris, a crew member of the Arctic Sunrise ship, told the Guardian.