Greenpeace volunteers on board Shell's 'Polar Explorer' oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Miriam Friedrich / Greenpeace.
Greenpeace occupies Shell rig after Arctic drilling go-ahead
Christine Ottery & Oliver Tickell
7th April 2015
Days after Shell received US Government backing for its plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic, volunteers from Greenpeace have occupied its 'Polar Pioneer' oil rig in the Pacific Ocean to demand a halt to all Arctic oil exploration.
Shell is the only oil giant that currently both has licences in the Chukchi Sea and intends to drill there this summer, after attempted exploratory drilling there in 2012.
Six Greenpeace volunteers have boarded Shell's 'Polar Pioneer' oil rig as it made its way to drill in the Alaskan Arctic about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.
As Shell threatens huge potential destruction from oil spills from its drilling, activists Aliyah, Jens, Johno, Miriam, Andreas and Zoe are aiming to show the world what Shell are up to - and are asking for your support!
"We made it! We're on Shell's platform. And we're not alone", wrote Aliyah Field, an American campaigner taking part in the protest. "Everyone can help turn this into a platform for people power!"
And Miriam Friedrich tweeted: "This is exhilarating! Almost like climbing a mountain for the first time." (see photo)
The action follows the news that the US government has upheld Shell's lease on oil and gas drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea, taking it - and other oil companies - are one step closer to drilling in the Arctic.
Last week the US government's Department of the Interior issued a 'record of decision' of the lease sale, a move that allows the authorities to deem Shell's exploration plan for the sea off Alaska's Arctic western coast as having been submitted.
Interior secretary Sally Jewell commented: "The Arctic is an important component of the Administration's national energy strategy". Obama's government, she added, is committed to "a thoughtful and balanced approach" to exploiting oil and gas off the coast of Alaska.
The news followed a US Department of Energy report published earlier this week that urged the use of Arctic oil to take the place of oil from fracking, which it says is on the way out.
Further hurdles to overcome
Following the Interior Department's decision, Shell now needs to secure the final go ahead on its plans to drill this summer in the Arctic from the US government's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
There are also host of other barriers to overcome, including getting drilling permits and authorisations to 'harass' protected wildlife.
Despite this, Shell began moving its Arctic drilling rigs from Asian shipyards towards Seattle port, which it could plan to use as a launch pad for its drilling off the coast of Alaska - including the one that is now 'under occupation' by Greenpeace protestors.
Shell is the only oil giant that currently both has licences in the Chukchi Sea and intends to drill there this summer, after attempted exploratory drilling there in 2012. This comes as Shell's contractor, Foss Maritime, looks likely to be engaged in a legal battle over using Seattle port.
A judge has recently agreed to hear the lawsuit brought by US environmental groups arguing that leasing the port terminal to Shell will be in contravention of the state's environmental laws. A previous case brought by US green groups succeeded in delaying Shell's Arctic drilling plans.
Shell's Arctic drilling was suspended in early 2013 following the grounding of the Kulluk oil drilling rig but the firm couldn't drill in 2014 as a result of a legal challenge over the figures for oil extraction BOEM's environmental impact statement.
Odds on for a big spill during operational lifetime
The final environmental impact statement for drilling in the Chukchi Sea, published in February, quadrupled the original amount of oil expected to be produced.
It also upgraded its assessment of the risk of oil spills in the sea - to at least a 75% chance of at least one large spill releasing over 1,000 barrels of oil in the sensitive marine and coastal environment over 77 years.
Scientists told Time that oil from Exxon Valdez oil spill, which happened 26 years ago, still lingers on Alaskan beaches.
Meanwhile, an engineering professor and expert on Deepwater Horizon, Robert Bea, warned the low oil price could increase the risk of environmental accidents in offshore drilling by forcing contractors to cut costs.
Cost-cutting only adds to the hazards
Major ocean drilling contractors have been put under pressure by the falling oil price, which has reduced demand for their rigs from oil giants such as Shell and BP - who are also squeezing their exploration costs.
Shell recently told investors that to "preserve Shell's financial flexibility" there were opportunities to cut costs, including in their supply chain.
Two leading contractors - Transocean, which is the world's largest offshore drilling operator, and Noble Corp - are providing the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer drilling rigs for Shell's intended Arctic drilling forays off the coast of Alaska this summer.
Both of the firms have had previous safety issues. A US federal judge ruled that Transocean was 30% to blame for the negligence that caused the 2010 DeepWater Horizon oil spill, which was about 20 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez.
A White House oil commission concluded the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was caused partly by a series of cost-cutting decisions made by BP, Transocean and Halliburton.
Late last year Noble Corp - whose main client is Shell - paid $12.2 million to settle felony charges brought by the US government related to environmental and safety violations on vessels in the Arctic while working for Shell in 2012.
"This unique, sensitive and often challenging environment requires effective oversight to ensure all activities are conducted safely and responsibly," Jewell said.
Climate change risk
The Arctic is estimated to hold 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas.
A paper published in Nature early this year completely ruled out drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic if we are to stay within 2 degrees of global warming over pre-industrial levels - the internationally-agreed threshold for catastrophic climate change.
Following pressure from its shareholders, Shell has recently agreed to test whether its business model is compatible with limiting global warming to 2C.
But Shell has so far spent around $6 billion since 2005 with the view to exploiting Arctic oil - though the firm hasn't managed to complete an Arctic exploration well in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
And that's how the Greenpeace volunteers want it to stay!
Christine Ottery writes for Greenpeace Energydesk, where this article was first published.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
This article is an updated version of one originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk.
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