Greenpeace in stand-off with warship at Arctic oil drill site

Last edited 23 August 2010 at 1:53pm
23 August, 2010

Greenpeace was today confronted by a Danish warship in the freezing seas off Greenland as the environmental group's protest ship ‘Esperanza' approached one of the world's most controversial oil drilling projects operated by the British company Cairn Energy.

The Greenpeace ship left London 12 days ago vowing to challenge the oil industry at the site of a dangerous deepwater drilling project in the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but didn't reveal its intended location until today when the ship arrived in the seas west of Disko Island in the Arctic.

The Danish government has sent the Vaedderen, a Thetis-class warship, to protect two drilling sites being operated by Britain's Cairn Energy. A special forces commando team was earlier dispatched to the Faroe Islands, where the Copenhagen government originally thought the Esperanza was headed. It is thought the Danish equivalent to navy SEALS have now been sent to the Cairn site and campaigners this morning reported seeing three navy inflatable boats in the waters around the rig.

The world's oil giants have been watching the $420m Cairn project with great interest. If the Edinburgh-based company strikes oil in the fragile environment west of Greenland analysts expect a new Arctic oil rush, with Exxon, Chevron and other energy giants already buying up licenses to drill in the area and making preparations to move in.

The stand-off between Greenpeace and the warship is in an area known as ‘iceberg alley'. Cairn is having to tow icebergs out of the rig's path or use water cannons to divert them. If the icebergs are too large the company has pledged to move the rig itself to avoid a collision. Last month a 260km2  ice island broke off the Petermann glacier north of Disko island. The region is also famous for its populations of blue whales, polar bears, seals and migratory birds.

Cairn Energy has pledged to drill a further two wells before the ‘summer window' closes at the end of September (1). The government of Greenland is refusing to release details of the company's spill response plan, seriously undermining the company's assurances on safety (2).

Campaigners say Cairn should abandon the risky drilling project immediately and consider investing in clean alternatives instead.

There is a 500m security zone surrounding each of the rigs. The Esperanza has been warned that the ship will be raided and the Captain arrested if the ship breaches that cordon. The Greenpeace ship is currently just outside the zone, while the Danish warship has positioned itself alongside the Esperanza.

Greenpeace campaigner Leila Deen is on the Esperanza:

"To see a huge drilling rig in this beautiful and fragile environment is deeply shocking. The tragic oil disasters in the Gulf and in China this year clearly illustrate the need to go beyond oil.  Companies like Cairn need to leave the Arctic alone and start developing the clean tools that will actually help us get off fossil fuels for good.

"Climate change is already having an impact on millions of people around the world but oil companies are completely ignoring the new reality we face. That's why we're here to deliver a message to them in person - go home now."

Greenpeace today released a briefing, found at the press centre of which highlights some of the reasons why Arctic drilling is so dangerous. Points include:

  • The drilling season is short, and is ended by the arrival of the Arctic winter and a thickening of sea ice which makes drilling of primary or relief wells impossible.
  • A blowout in a scenario where a relief well cannot be completed in the same drilling season could lead to oil gushing until at least next spring (3), with spilt oil becoming trapped under sheets of thick ice.
  • The environmental consequences of a spill in the Arctic environment would be far more serious than in warmer seas such as the Gulf of Mexico.(4) Serious impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska are still being felt over 20 years later.(5)
  • Baffin Bay [where the rig is drilling] is home to 80 to 90% of the world's Narwhals. The region is also home to blue whales, polar bears, seals, sharks, cormorants, kittiwakes and numerous other migratory birds.(6)

Tomorrow Cairn energy will announce its half yearly results at the company's headquarters in Edinburgh. The company is expected to reveal whether the first two wells it is currently drilling in Baffin Bay have been successful, as well as outlining plans to drill two new wells in the same area.

For more information including photos, video and interviews from the scene contact Greenpeace on 0207 865 8255




(1) Cairn media backgrounder, accessed at


(2) Freedom of Information request denied August 2010. Contact Greenpeace for full details.


(3) A. Mayeda 2010. Oil-spill relief well off Canada's Arctic coast would take three years: regulators. Postmedia News


(4) Brandvik, PJ, Sørheim, KR, Singsaas, I, and Reed, M (2006). Short State-of-the-Art Report on Oil Spills in Ice-Infested Waters: Oil Behaviour and Response Options. SINTEF. 19 May.


(5) Li H.L. & Boufadel M.C. 2010. Long-term persistence of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in two-layer beaches. Nat. Geosci., 3, 96-99


(6) Potential environmental impacts of oil spills in Greenland, National Environmental Research Institute, Ministry of the Environment, Denmark. 2002.


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