Activists protesting at Arctic oil drilling were thrown into the freezing Pechora Sea this morning by Russian sailors working for oil giant Gazprom.
The action is occurring as Arctic sea ice cover reaches its lowest ever extent four weeks earlier than the previous record five years ago, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
The ice extent was 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) on August 26; 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) below the previous record low extent of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles), recorded on September 18 2007.
The graph above shows how unprecedented this drop in ice cover is in historical terms.
NSIDC scientist Walt Meier called it "an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing", and its Director Mark Serreze, commented that: "The previous record, set in 2007, occurred because of near perfect summer weather for melting ice. Apart from one big storm in early August, weather patterns this year were unremarkable. The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow."
There is little doubt now that this pattern of ice loss is due to the unexpectedly fast increase in the rate of global warming. And yet the reaction of countries bordering the Arctic Ocean has been to see it as an opportunity to access the resources that lie on its seabed.
On Sunday, Royal Dutch Shell asked the U.S. Interior Department to extend a September deadline to complete planned drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northern coast, because it realised that its Arctic Challenger ship would become icebound later in the season than it had previously estimated. Shell also plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea.
Greenpeace is mounting a global challenge, which it claims is supported by almost two million people, to stop the drilling for oil and gas in the region. It argues that firstly any spillage or accident would have disastrous consequences and be almost impossible to clean up, and secondly that it is madness to continue to use fossil fuels when the climate of the planet is so obviously radically changing.
Its activists have been in the Arctic for five days. For the first three days they occupied the first permanent oil rig in the offshore Russian Arctic.
Then, Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo and six other Greenpeace activists in the Pechora Sea headed in two high-speed boats to intercept the Anna Akhmatova, a passenger vessel carrying workers to the rig, and were soon supported by two other boats carrying seven more.
14 activists from 10 countries attached themselves and their boats to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova in order to prevent it from sailing out to the Prirazlomnaya oil platform.
When the first officer sought orders from management in Moscow he was told to “use any means at your disposal to continue operations," according to Greenpeace. At 5am this morning, he ordered two Gazprom ships to train high-pressure water cannons onto the Greenpeace inflatable boats.
Their occupants were washed out of the boats, and thrown into icy water some distance away. They were rescued and are safe, and not long afterwards the action was called off.
The Prirazlomnaya is the first permanent oil platform in the offshore Arctic and marks what Greenpeace calls “the creeping industrialization” of the Arctic. The construction phase on the platform is nearly complete, and Gazprom is eager to begin drilling and become the first oil company to commercially produce oil from the offshore Arctic.
However, Greenpeace has warned that Gazprom has no strategy to prevent oil spills or clean them up if they occur. “Despite extreme operating conditions, Gazprom has only released a summary of its oil spill response plan to the public. Yet even this document shows that the company would be completely unprepared to deal with an accident in the Far North, and would rely on substandard clean-up methods, such as shovels and buckets," it said in a statement.
All countries that border the Arctic Ocean are lining up to exploit its riches. This includes Britain, which, under David Cameron's leadership, signed an agreement with Norway in June that commits it to tapping gas and oil reserves in the Arctic.
While campaigners reissued their call at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June for the Arctic to be made a scientific reserve along the lines of the Antarctic, the World Ocean Council has convened a meeting of the “Arctic Business Leadership Council” which is the start of a forum for representatives of shipping, oil and gas, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, marine science/technology and other industries with interests in the Arctic to see how they can “responsibly" exploit the new opportunities presented by the melting ice.
They will meet on 17 September in Reykjavik. The draft agenda calls for the setting up of a roadmap to show how it can be exploited. It also asks for opinions from industry on how the guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Business could be applied in the region.
Greenpeace said in a statement: “We're determined to save the Arctic. We know this is a different fight, at a different time; not least because the Arctic is home to millions of people who have a critical say in the future of their region; and because the threat is not just from industrial development, but from the global crisis of climate change."