by Severin Carrell, Guardian
The prime minister of Greenland has accused Greenpeace of threatening the safety of oil workers and the environment after four activists forced a controversial deep-sea exploration rig in the Arctic to shut down today.
Just before dawn, the four campaigners used three high-speed inflatable boats to evade the Danish navy before clambering on to the British-owned rig and slinging mountaineering-type platforms beneath it about 15 metres above the sea. The raid forced the Edinburgh-based oil exploration firm Cairn Energy to suspend drilling, escalating tensions between the Greenlandic government and Greenpeace.
Kuupik Kleist, the government's socialist prime minister, denounced the campaigners' actions, claiming they were damaging the economy of the country, now largely independent from Denmark, and ignoring the strict environmental and safety regulations Greenland had imposed on oil companies.
"This is clearly an illegal act, ignoring the rules of democracy," he said in a statement. "The cabinet regards Greenpeace's action as very serious and an illegal attack on the country's constitutional rights. It is worrying that Greenpeace, in their hunt for media exposure, violate security rules made to protect human lives and the environment."
The Greenpeace action follows a standoff between the campaigners' ship, Esperanza, and an armed Danish frigate and Greenland police vessels in Baffin Bay, west of Greenland, where Cairn Energy is hoping to uncover major new reserves of oil or gas.
For the last nine days, the Esperanza has been closely shadowed by the frigate and Danish commandos while it circled a 500-metre exclusion zone around the rig, waiting for the chance to launch its direct action.
Cairn, which is drilling in an area known as "iceberg alley", announced last week it had detected gas in shallow sands, prompting alarm among environmentalists.
Campaigners warn this will lead to a dangerous rush to exploit one of the world's last major untapped oil and gas fields in one of the planet's most fragile locations. Greenpeace has described the site as an important battleground in the campaign against climate change.
The US Geological Survey estimated last year that there could be 90bn barrels of oil and 50tn cubic metres of gas across the Arctic. Several multinational oil companies, including Exxon, Chevron and Shell, are waiting for permission from Greenland to begin deep sea drilling around its coast.
Sim McKenna, a US Greenpeace campaigner and one of the four activists occupying the platform, said Greenland and Cairn were being "reckless" with a fragile and pristine environment.
"We intend to stay here for as long as possible and as long as necessary to stop this reckless drilling," he said. "The BP Gulf oil disaster showed us it's time to go beyond oil. The drilling rig we're hanging off could spark an Arctic oil rush, one that would pose a huge threat to the climate and put this fragile environment at risk."
Greenpeace hopes it will be able to occupy the platform until the end of the week, seriously disrupting Cairn's drilling timetable. It hopes a long delay before drilling resumes will prevent Cairn from striking oil or gas before the intense Arctic winter sets in, forcing a halt to the exploration effort. The activists have food for several days and are wearing Arctic survival suits against the freezing temperatures, but are precariously tied to the underside of the rig.
Sources in the area said winds of up to 50mph were forecast for Thursday.
Morten Neilsen, deputy police chief for Greenland, said rescue vessels were standing by in case any of the climbers fell. He said all four would be arrested and prosecuted, but refused to say whether they would be forcibly removed.
"What we intend to do, how and when, is an operational detail it wouldn't be smart to advise Greenpeace about," he said.
Cairn Energy argues that Greenpeace has exaggerated the significance of its exploration and its risks. There are two major oil and gas fields already in the Arctic, at Sakhalin in eastern Russia and Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, providing 10% of the world's oil.
Greenpeace argues that deep-sea Arctic drilling is extremely perilous because of the sea ice and intense weather conditions in the region. It believes the risks posed by this operation go "far beyond" the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Arctic an oil spill would destroy vulnerable and as yet untouched habitats, while the cold water would prevent the oil from breaking down quickly.
Any emergency operation to tackle a disaster would encounter huge technical and logistical problems in such a remote area.
(Photos: Greenpeace, Inuit Ataqatigiit)
(Republished with permission)