Greenpeace activists boarded a Statoil rig in the early hours of Tuesday morning while it was en route to begin oil exploration work near the remote and protected island of Bjørnøya, after a suspension on drilling was overturned. The protestors said oil activity is too risky in the vulnerable Arctic region, while Statoil condemned the action as irresponsible and illegal.
Bjørnøya, under Norwegian jurisdiction, is known for its rich bird life. It lies between Svalbard and the coast of northern Norway in the Barents Sea.
Statoil received permission from the Ministry of Climate and Environment on Monday to begin drilling the first of three exploration wells under the Apollo prospect, in an area known as Hoop. The exploration rig Transocean Spitsbergen was about 300 kilometres offshore on Tuesday morning, reported newspaper Aftenposten.
Greenpeace complained about the exploration program to the government’s environment protection agency (Miljøverndepartementet), but claimed no injunction was placed on Statoil’s activities while the complaint was under consideration. Activists from eight countries aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza climbed onto the rig at 5am on Tuesday, and Greenpeace said they would not disembark until they got word the drilling had been banned, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
“This drilling is totally irresponsible,” said Greenpeace’s Arctic advisor, Erlend Tellnes. “Statoil will gamble with the rich natural assets on Bjørnøya and in the ice margin just to fetch up more of the oil which the climate cannot tolerate us burning. Therefore we are here to ask Statoil to stop.”
He said nearly 50,000 people had petitioned Environment Minister Tine Sundtoft to stop the drilling and protect Bjørnøya over just a few days. “We are disappointed that the Ministry of Climate and Environment has overridden its own expert agencies, but our complaint still lies on the minister’s table,” Tellnes said. “Tine Sundtoft still has the opportunity to stop the drilling, and protect the nesting grounds on Bjørnøya from a possible oil spill.”
The group argued an oil spill in the region would impact on bird populations in the Bjørnøya nature reserve in under a week.
Statoil said it respected the right to democratic debate and legal protest against its activities. “But we believe this action is both unlawful and irresponsible,” information manager Ørjan Heradstveit told NRK. “They have boarded a rig in open sea, and that is not without risk.”
Statoil said an oil spill in the area was highly unlikely, but a number of contingencies to handle an accident had nevertheless been put in place. “For us it is important to recall that the Hoop area has been impact-assessed and opened for petroleum activities by Norwegian authorities,” Heradstveit said. “Hoop is an area with known geology, low pressure and temperatures, and where Statoil has robust plans for the operations.”
He said Statoil’s emergency team was on standby, evaluating the situation. “It’s still early, so we must see if it’s appropriate to ask for assistance from the coast guard, for example.” The Norwegian Coast Guard vessel KV Harstad has been following the Greenpeace campaign.
Heradstveit told Aftenposten that despite receiving government permission for exploration work on Monday, Statoil could not drill into the oil layer before Greenpeace’s complaint had been considered by the ministry, refuting the activists’ claims.