Behind the Arctic 30: Why protest Gazprom’s Arctic oil drilling?

• October 10, 2013
arctic oil drilling

Ljubljana vigil in Solvenia to free the Arctic 30. Credit: Bob Ramsak of piran cafe, 2013.

Thirty activists are locked up in Russia, facing up to 15 years in prison for charges of piracy — all for peacefully protesting against Arctic oil drilling.

The “Arctic 30,” as they are now known, consist of 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists who were captured and arrested by Russian authorities while aboard the Greenpeace vessel ‘Arctic Sunrise.’ The day before their arrest, a small group of the activists attempted a non-violent protest of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya Arctic oil platform, but were forced to stop when the Russian Coast Guard threatened them with gunfire and arrested two people.

Why did the Arctic 30 risk their lives to be in these frigid waters in protest of Gazprom’s Arctic oil drilling?

The warming climate is causing Arctic ice to melt to unprecedented lows, which not only harms the people and wildlife that depend on the Arctic directly, but also undermines the stability of a liveable climate for the entire planet. Unfortunately, to fossil fuel companies hunting merely for profits, a warming Arctic looks like a new frontier for expanded oil extraction — the very activity that’s warming the planet in the first place.

What is Russian oil company Gazprom doing in the Arctic?

The Arctic is a dangerous new frontier for offshore drilling, and Russia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, sees it as a key source of oil that it is intent on exploiting.

The Prirazlomnaya Arctic oil platform owned by Russian oil company Gazprom represents a new, more urgent risk to both the Arctic and the climate than previous offshore drilling activities.

Located in the Pechora Sea, this platform will make Gazprom the first company to drill for oil from beyond the Arctic ice line, where it’s so cold that the ocean is covered by a sheet of solid ice for all but one to four months of the year.

Oil companies that have ventured into the Arctic Circle have already encountered the dangers of drilling in rough, icy waters: Shell, with $5 billion invested in Arctic drilling off the coast of Alaska, halted the operation for the rest of 2013 in February after their accidents and failures, which risked both human life and the environment, made top news headlines. To many, this indicated that oil companies simply can’t weather the extreme conditions of the Arctic.

Now Gazprom, heedless of the problems Shell faced, is taking their operation a step further by setting up the Prirazlomnaya platform in waters that are frozen over for at least two-thirds of the year. Gazprom describes the rig as “an offshore ice-resistant stationary platform.”

Gazprom has plans to drill 40 oil wells from the Prirazlomnaya platform, extracting oil reserves that cannot be burned if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

In hazardous Arctic conditions, is Gazprom operating safely?

No, not according to their history. In the words of Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace,

It’s ridiculous for Gazprom to claim that Greenpeace International is endangering the Arctic environment or its workers. It was recently involved in an accident where its drilling rig Kolskaya sank in the freezing waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, killing 53 crew members. The company was warned that the rig was not suitable for the harsh conditions found off Sakhalin, a remote location far from potential rescue crews and support infrastructure, but carried on regardless. The rig drilled beyond its approved operational window and without having full safety assessments and was then towed away through heavy winter seas, even though towing in winter was expressly forbidden by the rig manufacturer.

What would happen in the event of an oil spill?

Cleaning up oil in the Arctic has never been done, and several studies have concluded it could be nearly impossible due to the extreme conditions. Greenpeace Canada has more on the risks of a spill by the Prirazlomnaya rig:

The Prirazlomnoye oil field is near a number of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries including the Nenetsky and Vaygach reserves which are particularly important to Walrus numbers.

The problem is that cleaning up a spill in icy waters – with oil potentially moving under ice – has never been done. Indeed, there are many – including almost all environmental groups – who believe it is impossible.

In a recent study for WWF, experts at the Russian Informatica Riska ran computerised risk models on various oil spill scenarios on the platform Prirazlomnaya and determined the total area which may be affected by an accident.

“Our analysis showed that, within the standards established by the spill volumes, we could often observe conditions when the operating company will not be able to contain and recover the spill. For example, if a spill occurred at night or under adverse meteorological conditions,” said Valentin Zhuravel, project manager at Informatica Riska. “This can lead to significant pollution in the Pechora Sea coast and protected areas.”

Should the activists be locked up?

No. Politicians, legal expertsenvironmental organizations, and the public agree that the Arctic 30 should be freed.

Russia’s actions — from boarding and seizing Greenpeace’s vessel to charging the Arctic 30 with piracy — were an overstep of its legal authority. The protests were entirely peaceful and the activists posed no threat to the oil platform or its crew. Additionally, Russian authorities acted illegally when they boarded the Greenpeace vessel: the ship was not in Russian territorial waters, meaning it was out of Russian legal jurisdiction.

Russian authorities seem to be making an example of the Arctic 30 — a tactic of intimidation against Greenpeace and others around the world who are non-violently protesting the dangerous activities that are wreaking havoc on the planet.

In the words of Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International,

Our activists have been charged with a crime that did not happen, they are accused of an imaginary offence. There can be no doubt about why the charge of piracy has been brought and the legal hammer wielded. An effort is underway to intimidate us, but our peaceful passionate campaign against Gazprom and all other Arctic drillers will not be silenced.

Recent events with the Arctic 30 aren’t the first time that Russia has shown the lengths to which it will go to protect its oil industry. The actions of the Russian authorities side them with Big Oil and undercut people’s right to peacefully protest. Standing in solidarity with the Arctic 30 sends an important signal that a nation’s abuse of power won’t discourage the continued fight to save the Arctic and protect the planet.

What are the activists saying about their actions?

Anne Mie Roer Jensen, activist, Denmark

This was not a violent attack but a non-violent demonstration. We did not use weapons, we are peaceful. We want to save the Arctic, and we are here to spread the word. Near the platform [Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya] we ensured that our equipment was safe. In contrast, the officers who detained us were using fire arms. I don’t have any extra information to hide. I won’t run away. I know that I believe in saving the Arctic. —  Anne’s response to questioning in Murmansk

Sini Saarela, activist, Finland

You can try to stop us with icy water, but it will not deter us, because we know how important it is for the fragile environment here, to prevent oil drilling. The Arctic nature around me will not survive oil spills. — Sini during a previous protest on the Prirazlomnaya platform

Denis Sinyakov, freelance photographer, Russia

The criminal activity I am blamed for is called journalism. I will keep doing it. Greenpeace is an organization with a 40-year history and is well known for its activities. But I don’t work for it. I am a journalist. You can see my photos in the media in Russia and all over the world. All my equipment has been seized. My only weapon is my camera.

Meet the rest of the Arctic 30, and read more about why each was driven to participate in the action.

How can you help?

Show your solidarity: Help free the Arctic 30 today!

  • Sign the petition to Russian embassies around the world calling for the activists to be freed, and then share the petition with friends on social media using the hashtag #FreeTheArctic30. Already, over 900,000 people have sent a message to Russian embassies.
  • Post a simple video or photo in support of the Arctic 30 on social media, like this one!


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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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