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Environment

Activists board Shell rig to protest Arctic drilling

Greenpeace activists who have boarded an oil rig to protest Arctic drilling say they will only leave once their message has been heard. Shell called the action irresponsible, and has filed suit against the protesters.

Miriam Friedrich usually lives in Austria - a country that doesn't even border the sea. But right now, the 23-year-old is sitting on an oil rig in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Together with five other Greenpeace activists, she climbed Shell's Arctic-bound Polar Pioneer to raise awareness about the environmental risks involved in Arctic drilling.

Last week, the United States Department of the Interior approved Shell's drilling lease for the Arctic.

'Crazy idea'

Greenpeace activists (Photo: Vincenzo Floramo)

Miriam Friedrich (third from right) and other Greenpeace activists

From the drilling platform, Miriam Friedrich told DW: "It's crazy, absolutely irresponsible to drill for oil in the Arctic. Shell has had huge problems there in the past. They are not well prepared for dealing with oil spills, so the whole story is a disaster."

Explaining the action, she added "It's about waking people up and creating awareness."

The Arctic is estimated to hold 20 percent of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon resources. But developing them is not only costly - it's also risky. According to conservation groups, oil spills are very likely to occur.

Environmentalists also claim that companies have not demonstrated they can clean up bigger spills in icy ocean water.

Getting cozy on an oil rig

The Polar Pioneer is currently on its way from Malaysia to Seattle, where it shall be transported to the Chukchi Sea - an area coveted both by environmentalists and oil drillers alike. Now, halfway through the journey, six activists have boarded the oil rig.

"The crew did see us and filmed us, but didn't do anything to stop us," Friedrich said. After boarding, they unrolled a banner emblazoned with the slogan "The people vs. Shell."

The activists have set up camp on the underside of the main deck. "We've got mattresses and hammocks. It is becoming quite cold and windy, but we are all fine," Friedrich told DW.

The six activists are accompanied by a 35-person crew on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, which tailed the Polar Pioneer for more than 5,000 nautical miles since it left Malaysia.

Friedrich said the encampment has food for several days, but can get more supplies. "We will stay until our message gets heard," she added.

Shell blasts 'stunt'

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh condemned the action: "Protestors from Greenpeace have illegally boarded the Polar Pioneer, jeopardizing not only the safety of the crew onboard, but the protestors themselves," she said.

"We will not … allow these stunts to distract from preparations underway to execute a safe and responsible exploration program," she added in a statement. Royal Dutch Shell has filed a complaint in federal court in Alaska to remove the activists.

Greenpeace activists in boat pulling up alongside rig (Photo: Vincenzo Floramo)

Greenpeace activists pulled up alongside the oil rig to board it

The company intends to resume drilling off Alaska after a two-year break. At that time, it froze operations due to major problems - and protests by environmental groups.

In 2012, Shell lost control of the massive Kulluk oil rig, which eventually ran aground. And in 2012, the owner of drill ship the Noble Discoverer was found guilty for committing eight environmental and maritime crimes in the Arctic Ocean.

Hired by Shell, the company that owns the ship must pay a $12.2 million (11.2-million-euro) fine.

Last week, the US Department of Interior approved Shell's drilling lease for the Arctic, putting Royal Dutch Shell a major step closer to returning to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

"The Arctic is an important component of the administration's national energy strategy, and we remain committed to taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas leasing and exploration offshore Alaska," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Arctic drilling could be felt globally

But despite approval of the drilling lease, Miriam Friedrich is convinced that Arctic drilling still can be stopped - and that it must be stopped. Not only for the sake of the Arctic, she says, but - in light of climate change - also for the whole world.

"What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," Friedrich said. "It concerns me as an Austrian as much as everyone else on this planet."

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