An environmental organization with a $350 million war chest, a giant protest vessel, 28 activists and a rubber raft have succeeded in drawing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin into a very public global dispute.
Attention is now focused on the Greenpeace activists—who were arrested last month by Coast Guard agents for trying to hang a protest banner on an Arctic Ocean oil platform—and whether they will languish in prison for up to 15 years each on dubious piracy charges.
"They are obviously not pirates," Putin said in a speech to the International Arctic Forum last month. Yet Russian authorities so far seem to be throwing the book at the activists as international outrage grows to secure their freedom. Protests have been held at Russian consulates in about a half dozen cities worldwide to release the activists.
While the unfolding drama is now focused on issues of civil disobedience and human rights, underneath the uproar is a tangle of issues around Arctic drilling that Greenpeace has been campaigning to address for many years. And now it has secured the world's attention and a chance to spark a discussion—and the stakes are high.
Earlier this year in a report called Point of No Return, the confrontational organization identified oil drilling in Arctic waters as one of the biggest climate threats being ignored by the world's governments.
"Oil companies plan to take advantage of melting sea ice ... to produce up to 8 million barrels a day of oil and gas," Greenpeace said in the report. "The drilling would add 520 million tons of CO2 a year to global emissions by 2020."
That Greenpeace would target Russia's Prirazlomnoye oil platform—which this fall is expected be the world's first offshore Arctic well—should not come as a surprise. And it is equally unsurprising that Russia, currently the world's biggest oil producer, would react so sharply to protect its oil interests and the flagship project of its multibillion-dollar quest to drill, especially as the United States is overtaking Russia as the No. 1 energy producer.
"This is probably the strongest reaction we've gotten from a government since the French government blew up one of our ships [in 1985 in an anti-nuclear protest]," said Philip Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
Hidden from view so far, however, has been the environmental damage the Arctic is already suffering at the hands of the Russian oil industry, a degradation that would likely get worse if the oil boom there continues without better regulation, according to Greenpeace and other Russian environmentalists and scientists.
Every year, according to Greenpeace, about 30 million barrels of oil products leak from wells and pipelines in Russia. An estimated four million barrels of that, roughly the size of BP's Gulf of Mexico spill, flows straight into the Arctic Ocean through tributaries.
The precise impact of these spills on the fragile Arctic environment and its people is unknown but is likely substantial, Greenpeace says. For them the leaks—and the alleged lack of adequate means to deal with them—are an example of an inadequate safety culture in the country's oil industry. And they're causing deep concern about Russia's aggressive push to start drilling for oil in open Arctic waters.
"Russia will not be ready for effective monitoring, supervising and working in the Arctic Ocean," said Vladimir Chuprov, a Russian citizen and the head of energy for Greenpeace Russia in Moscow, the country's main energy industry watchdog. Chuprov has been monitoring oil spills for the past decade.
While Russia produces 12 percent of the world's oil, it is responsible for roughly half the world's oil spills, according to Greenpeace Russia figures. Broken down, the numbers reveal that some 30 million barrels of petroleum leak from 20,000 inland spills each year.
Official government records paint a different picture. Russian environmental officials say there are only hundreds of inland spills a year. Among other omissions, however, those figures don't include spills that dump less than 56 barrels, because companies aren't required to report those incidents.
The two Russian oil companies that already received government approval to drill the Arctic have notorious records for oil accidents and spills.
The Prirazlomnoye platform in the Arctic's Pechora Sea that Greenpeace targeted is owned and operated by Gazprom Neft Shelf LLC, a subsidiary of the state-run energy giant OAO Gazprom. Gazprom Neft was responsible for the country's worst offshore oil disaster in December 2011, when a floating rig sank in the Sea of Okhotsk, killing 53 workers. According to the company's 2012 sustainability report, the company reported 2,626 pipeline ruptures that year and 3,257 ruptures in 2011.