As latest battle commences, opponents say drilling is ‘just not compatible’ with U.S. climate commitments

By Margaret Kriz Hobson | 04/07/2015 08:25 AM EDT

A small team of Greenpeace activists sailing in the Pacific Ocean yesterday left their home ship, the Esperanza, and scrambled onto a heavy-lift vessel that’s hauling Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s Polar Pioneer drill rig from Singapore to Seattle. Days before the encounter, Greenpeace activist Laura Keyon explained that the group is holding the spotlight on Shell’s actions in hopes of building international opposition to the company’s bid to drill for oil this summer in the U.S. Arctic.

A small team of Greenpeace activists sailing in the Pacific Ocean yesterday left their home ship, the Esperanza, and scrambled onto a heavy-lift vessel that’s hauling Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s Polar Pioneer drill rig from Singapore to Seattle.

After stalking the Blue Marlin haul ship from the South China Sea, the protesters approached the ship in inflatable boats, climbed up the side of the vessel and set up camp on the underside of the Polar Pioneer’s main deck.

Greenpeace’s latest act of guerilla environmentalism, which was described in play-by-play detail on social media sites across the globe, occurred 750 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands.


Days before the encounter, Greenpeace activist Laura Keyon explained that the group is holding the spotlight on Shell’s actions in hopes of building international opposition to the company’s bid to drill for oil this summer in the U.S. Arctic.

"I’m here because we have to say ‘no’ to Arctic oil drilling and keep pushing back against this misguided drive from companies like Shell to desperately hunt the last bits of oil," said Keyon, a Canadian who did not board the drill rig, in an interview from the Esperanza.

"We hear a lot of talk from leadership from the president of the United States and the leader of my own country that we’re going to address climate change," she said. "But you can’t say that and then approve something like offshore Arctic oil drilling. They’re just not compatible."

Greenpeace boarded Shell’s contracted drill rig a week after the Obama administration ended a legal battle that blocked oil drilling in the American Arctic and reaffirmed the federal government’s 2008 decision to sell oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea (EnergyWire, April 1).

In doing so, the Interior Department opened the door for federal regulators to consider Shell’s application to drill in the Chukchi Sea during this summer’s open water season. The administration has not yet formally accepted the company’s request, which would trigger a 30-day timeline for the government to review the proposal.

In anticipation of getting Interior’s blessings, Shell is already moving the Polar Pioneer and the drillship Noble Discoverer to Seattle, while at the same time applying for the state and federal permits to sink its drill bit into the Arctic seafloor.

Environmental activists argue that drilling in the Arctic could seriously harm local wildlife and jeopardize subsistence hunting along Alaska’s northern coast.

They note that the government’s most recent environmental assessment predicts that there’s a 75 percent chance that a large oil spill could occur as industry develops the Chukchi leases. Regulators concede that there’s no effective way to clean up or contain an oil spill in icy Arctic Ocean conditions.

In the last year, drilling opponents have also been increasingly using climate change arguments to rally support for a ban on Arctic oil development.

"People are really waking up to the idea that drilling in the Arctic is a bad idea, not only because of the risks of an oil spill and risks to the animals, but also because it’s bad climate policy," said Erik Grafe, an attorney for Earthjustice in Alaska who handled the lawsuit challenging the government’s 2008 Chukchi leases.

"We’ve got to start deciding which places we’re going to leave oil in the ground, and the Arctic is a prime example of such a place," he said.

Sights also set on Paris climate summit

While Greenpeace seeks to hang anti-drilling signs off the Polar Pioneer, more than a dozen national environmental groups are separately and more quietly mobilizing opposition to Shell’s plan to explore for oil in Alaska’s northern waters.

A broad cross-section of environmental organizations "are coming to the conclusion that this is one issue that they really should be involved in, whether it’s Audubon with birds or Oceana with fish and marine mammals," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage-based conservationist and environmental lawyer.

"It’s just such a fundamental threat," he said.

The anti-drilling movement is likely to gain momentum this year as its members take their protests to two important international summits.

First, environmentalists will be pressing their case at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting late this month in northern Canada, as the United States takes over as the lead nation of the eight-nation forum. The Obama administration has ranked climate change among the top priorities for its term.

Late in the year, the anti-Arctic drilling campaigns are also planning protests at the U.N. Climate Change Conference being held in Paris.

Activists charge that Obama’s continued support for Arctic drilling is undercutting his promise to dramatically cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and his efforts to persuade other countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

"From now through the Paris climate talks, we’re going to do all we can to talk about climate change and the Arctic Ocean drilling issues, tie them together and put them front and center in people’s minds," explained Dan Ritzman, Alaska director for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign.

Decades-long battle

If Shell’s proposed Chukchi Sea drilling operation ever begins pumping oil, it wouldn’t be the first energy project in the American Arctic.

In the 1980s, BP began producing oil from its Endicott lease site, located in Alaska state waters 4 miles from shore. The company built its production facilities on an artificial island connected to shore by a causeway.

Then, in 2000, BP began work at its Northstar prospect, 12 miles off Alaska’s northern coast. This time, the company built a stand-alone island and is using a subsea pipeline to transport oil to shore.

The Northstar project attracted Greenpeace protesters, who set up camp on the sea ice near the project and were eventually arrested for trespassing. Among the Greenpeace protesters arrested at the Northstar site was the Sierra Club’s Ritzman.

The on-the-ground confrontations ended later that year, when a federal judge issued a restraining order barring Greenpeace activists from interfering with the oil company’s project.

Today’s battle over drilling in the Chukchi Sea began during the George W. Bush administration when Interior opened leasing on 29 million acres of that region of the Arctic Ocean.

The lease sale drew $2.6 billion in successful bids for 448 drilling tracts, including $2.1 billion spent by Shell.

Ever since then, Shell has spent billions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to sink a drill bit into the hydrocarbon zone on its expensive leases.

The company’s only serious opportunity to characterize the resources at its lease sites in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas occurred in 2012. However, devastating equipment failures, weather problems and management issues prevented the company from carrying out its full drill plan.

This year, Shell officials expect to spend $1 billion to drill in the Chukchi Sea — on top of the $6 billion the company has already spent to drill in the Arctic.

The oil giant keeps coming back because studies show the Arctic could hold enormous reserves of oil. Federal scientists predict that the entire Chukchi region contains 15.4 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil — one of the largest untapped sources of energy in the United States.

No tolerance for ‘illegal tactics’ — Shell

The Blue Marlin, the heavy-lift vessel that’s hauling Shell’s Polar Pioneer drill rig, is expected to sail into the Port of Seattle within a week, although it’s uncertain whether Greenpeace’s recent confrontation will alter the company’s plans.

In a statement issued after the activists climbed onto the rig, Shell blasted Greenpeace for "jeopardizing not only the safety of the crew on board, but the protestors themselves."

"Shell has met with organizations and individuals who oppose energy exploration offshore Alaska. We respect their views and value the dialogue," said Kelly op de Weegh, Shell’s U.S. spokeswoman.

"We will not, however, condone the illegal tactics employed by Greenpeace," she said. "Nor we will allow these stunts to distract from preparations underway to execute a safe and responsible exploration program."

If the Blue Marlin reaches Seattle, it will be the centerpiece of anti-drilling rallies and will be barraged by a "flotilla of kayaks" organized by Greenpeace and local groups that are pushing the port authority to cancel Shell’s lease to house its Arctic fleet at a city terminal.

The protesters are hoping that Seattle’s anti-drilling campaign, which has attracted support from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), will serve as a springboard for opposition throughout the nation.

Meanwhile, Shell is likely to return to the courts for help in blocking future Greenpeace action, much like it did in 2012. At that point, Shell won an injunction barring Greenpeace from getting within a mile of its vessels and prohibiting activists from trespassing, barricading or blocking access to the company’s equipment.

This year, Greenpeace officials aren’t saying whether they’ll follow Shell up to Alaska.

From her desk on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, Keyon said the organization is closely watching the Obama administration’s handling of Shell’s drilling application. But Greenpeace doesn’t have any firm plans, she said.

"We’re following the process of allocating the drilling permits, which isn’t over yet, and we’re following this rig," Keyon noted. "And what happens with both of those things will determine where we go next."