Cairn Energy has fired the starting guns on its 2011 Arctic drilling operation.
Their plan is to lug a couple of massive rigs up to the icy waters around Greenland and drill four exploratory holes in the seabed. If they strike oil it'll mean big money for their boss Bill Gammell (check out his spoof Twitter account) but disaster for the planet.
I say disaster because we know what happens when an oil rush hits. Whether it’s the Niger Delta, Gulf of Mexico or the Candian Tar Sands, when oil companies pile into an area it means one thing: environmental destruction.
That’s exactly why a handful of my colleagues went up to the Arctic last summer in the Greenpeace ship Esperanza: to stop Cairn drilling. They managed to evade a Danish navy cordon and climb the legs of Cairn’s rig, suspending themselves in temporary ledges above the freezing waters. A brave example of non-violent direct action, their 40-hour occupation of the rig forced Cairn’s drills to stop spinning.
Cairn failed to find Arctic oil in 2010, but they’re going back this year to hunt again. And this time they’re taking their friends.
Behind the smaller players like Cairn the industry giants are gathering – Shell has already signed up to start drilling their own Arctic wells later this year.
The Arctic really is the final frontier for oil exploration. For most of the year the sea ice is frozen over and the oil companies can’t even get their drills into position. For the rest of the year – during the summer thaw – companies like Cairn have a few desperate months in which to sink their drills, before the freeze sets in again.
If that’s not indication enough of how reckless our dirty energy addiction has become, think about the tugs around the oil rigs, working 24-hours a day to drag incoming icebergs out the way of the rigs to avoid a catastrophic collision.
All of this for a projected oil reserve that equates to less than three years of global oil consumption at current levels.
Saving the Arctic is not just about stopping the likes of Cairn. Even if you could prevent every gambler like Gammell from going to the area, the Arctic still wouldn’t be safe. Nor would the polar bears that are increasingly threatened by their melting habitats.
That’s because the biggest threat to the Arctic is not from an oil spill, but from rising global temperatures.
Cairn’s rigs are a key part of that equation, fuelling the myth that we can keep on chasing the last drops of oil consequence-free, in ever-more remote parts of the planet.
But if we really want to protect the Arctic then we have to stop oil being dug up and burnt, wherever that happens. If we don’t do anything, we’re set for a four to six degree rise in global temperatures that would be disastrous for the Arctic ice, which is already melting at unprecedented rates.
Here in the UK we’ve been trying to stop deep water oil drilling in our own waters. Over 20,000 of you sent emails to Chris Huhne – the Energy Secretary – calling on him to put a stop to new deep water drilling.
That didn’t prevent him giving the green light to Chevron to drill off the Shetland Islands.
We then took direct action again, stepping in where our politicians failed: occupying the anchor chain of Chevron’s drill ship and then leaping in the way of the moving ship, stopping it with our bodies.
But still the politicians continued to disregard our environment and climate, burying their heads in the (tar) sand and rubber stamping the drilling licenses.
Since then our lawyers have taken the government to court, saying that issuing of licenses for drilling in UK waters is illegal. The judges are still poring over the piles of paper in the case but we should have an update soon. Our case is strong and we’re confident we have a winnable argument.
Now today one of the government committees has released a report with some pretty contradictory conclusions. While admitting “serious doubts about the ability of oil spill response equipment” and “cut and paste oil spill response plans” from the drilling companies, it then goes on to say a moratorium on deep water drilling is not necessary and would “undermine energy security”.
If the government truly wants energy security, it could champion tough new emissions rules for cars, which could save a million barrels of oil a day.
Oil is a finite resource. It will run out. The only question we need to ask is do we want to transition away from oil before we wreck the planet or are we happy to pander to the pressures of the oil lobby and keep drilling as long as we can while swelling the profits in their pockets?
It’s a straightforward decision.
However there are powerful oil interests that stand in the way of a transition to a clean energy future.
The oil lobby is not just companies like Cairn, Shell and BP at the production end, but also car giants at the consumption end, keen to prevent the introduction of emissions limits on their vehicles. These industry lobbyists have enormous influence on the politicians making the key decisions, both at a national and an international level.
Our challenge for 2011 is to confront that lobby, and set us on the path to a future beyond oil.
Ambitious? Yes. Possible? Definitely. But we can’t do it alone.
Together we achieved some epic victories in 2010, but we know this year can be even more successful.
Stay tuned, it’s going to be an exciting 2011.