On Sept. 18 in the Pechora Sea, which abuts the Arctic Ocean just north of Finland and the Arctic Circle, the environmental organization Greenpeace conducted a protest against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic cap of the globe.
A state-owned Russian enterprise called Gazprom has erected a very large oil-drilling rig in the Pechora, and it will probably soon be the first platform — of many anticipated — to raise oil from beneath the Arctic sea floor.
Two Greenpeace activists secured ropes to points high on the side of the rig and attempted to climb up the almost-sheer wall — probably for the purpose of unfurling a giant banner. The banner would most likely have read, “Stop Arctic Drilling,” and been seen against the backdrop of the enormous industrial platform, it would have made for a striking visual protest.
But before the climbers could ascend very far, they were apprehended and taken into custody by armed crewmen in small boats deployed from the Russian Coast Guard.
So far, so good. Greenpeace has a 42-year history of skillful, nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, and it has a sophisticated understanding of the risks involved and the possible consequences of its often dramatic actions. The Gazprom platform is private property, and I’m quite sure that the arrest of the two protesters — perhaps with some fines levied — would have been viewed by Greenpeace (and other observers) as possible, with precedent, and proportionate to the trespassing that indeed occurred.
But, crazily, Russia went much further. The next day, on Sept. 19, Russian assault soldiers lowered themselves from helicopters onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, the 163-foot converted icebreaker that Greenpeace uses for various ocean campaigns, and commandeered the ship and crew. The Sunrise was situated near the oil rig awaiting news of the detained activists (who had initially launched from the Sunrise in small rubber boats).
No shots were fired. Like Quakers, Greenpeace “bears witness,” and its participants are trained in nonviolent responses, so the Sunrise crew offered no armed resistance to the soldiers. The ship was towed to Murmansk, a Russian port closest to the oil rig.
Today — seven weeks after the seizure — the entire crew of 28, plus two journalists, are still being held behind bars in Murmansk (they are scheduled to be moved to St. Petersburg). They have been charged with “hooliganism.” In Russia, that means, essentially, that they have used force, or threatened to use force, against either persons or property. If convicted, they could serve up to seven years in jail.
The charges are serious and absurd. Greenpeace does not ever use force against people, and two roped activists with a publicity banner are not a threat to damage an oil rig.
Furthermore, Russia broke the law by seizing the Arctic Sunrise. The ship was in international waters, is well known as a peaceful protest vessel and was abiding by all standard maritime rules, practices and required distances.
Greenpeace and the Netherlands, where the ship is registered, have asked the International Tribunal for the U.N. Law of the Sea to rule on the legality of Russia’s actions.
Americans, and the citizens of all nations, should be outraged at Russia’s illegal, military and disproportionate reactions — the invasion and impounding of a sovereign ship and the incarceration of its crewmembers, who hail from 18 different countries.
While much attention is rightly focused on Russia’s authoritarianism, let us not lose sight of why Greenpeace is protesting in the Arctic region. The global warming of the atmosphere and the seas — much more severe at the earth’s poles than at its midsection — caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (both in the air and seas) from fossil-fuel burning, is starting to melt significant portions of the northernmost ice cap and glaciers. This is continuing to free up larger and larger portions of the Arctic Ocean for longer and longer periods of time.
Consequently, oil companies are planning to venture farther north than ever before with large oil-drilling platforms. An estimated 175 billion barrels of oil and gas are buried under the Arctic seas, and Gazprom and Shell and many others are eager to raise it.
The problem is this. In the freezing, difficult weather and waters of the Arctic, there is the potential for a disastrous oil accident. In 2010, when the British Petroleum oil well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out its cap almost 1 mile below the surface and spewed out roughly 4 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil over the course of three months, we were nearly unable to halt the rupture. And that was in a warm, calm, tranquil-seas environment.
Duplicate that accident in the Arctic, and there is a very real possibility that man and technology would not be able to stop the gusher, period.
Greenpeace is asking us to consider the risks of Arctic drilling, the risks of burning fossil fuels and the risks of ever-increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. If we don’t stop to appreciate the risks that our current energy technologies entail, then we may not find the motivation to make better choices.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.