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Environment

Greenpeace vs. Russia: the tip of the iceberg?

Moscow rejects the authority of an international tribunal hearing an appeal for the release of the "Arctic 30" Greenpeace activists detained in Russia. Meanwhile, it's business as usual in the race for Arctic oil.

Some 13 percent of the world's remaining undiscovered oil reserves, 30 percent of its gas are estimated to be in the Arctic. The higher the price of energy, the faster the ice melts, the greater the international interest in a region becoming increasingly accessible as the world continues to warm. At the same time concern is growing amongst those who see development as a threat to the sensitive environment of the "High North" - and an increasing risk for the global climate: the burning of more fossil fuels would further intensify global change by producing more CO2 emissions.

The harsh nature of Russia's reaction to the Greenpeace protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Arctic demonstrates how important the region has become for the government in Moscow. Thirty of the activists and accompanying journalists have been held in jail in Russia since the Greenpeace ship "Arctic Sunrise" was impounded by Russian security officers two months ago. Last week, the Russian Federation boycotted a hearing at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), saying the court had no authority in the matter.

Greenpeace activist Sini Saarela of Finland appears in Murmansk's Oktyabrsky District Court for a hearing into an appeal against her arrest

Greenpeace activist Sini Saarela in court in Murmansk

In the meantime, Russia has re-established its military presence in the Arctic. Symbolically, a Russian ice-breaker carried the Olympic flag to the North Pole, where a submarine placed a Russian flag on the seabed in 2010. President Putin has repeatedly asserted his country's claim to the wealth of hydrocarbon resources thought to be there for the taking under the rapidly melting Arctic ice.

While Greenpeace has stepped up its campaign to stop oil drilling in the Arctic and to have the activists and ship released, the business of Arctic exploration and development is gaining momentum.

Who owns Arctic treasures?

There is international disagreement about border lines in the Arctic Ocean. When resources are found close to the coast, the situation is generally clear. But the valuable oil and gas reserves thought to be located outside the agreed 200 mile zones are in disputed territory. The Arctic states - Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia and the US - have all laid claim to territory outside their 200 mile limits. The claims are being investigated under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The countries have submitted data to prove that the seabed is a continuation of their respective landmass. But while the lengthy process to examine the evidence continues, the states and oil companies are pressing ahead.

Norway and Russia reached an agreement in 2010 over their disputed borders in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, paving the way for oil exploration. Canada, which currently holds the chair of the Arctic Council, has made the development of the High North its priority. The US and Denmark have also intensified their activities in the Arctic. Big oil companies, some of them state-owned, are already active, including Rosneft, Statoil, Italy's ENI, Exxon Mobil and Shell. The state-owned Indian company ONGC expressed interest in Arctic exploration during a recent meeting with Russian President Putin.

Environmental dangers

The oil catastrophe in the Gulf von Mexico in 2010 drew attention to the risks of a possible accident in Arctic waters. The oil industry responded with a "Joint Industry Program" (JIP) to assess the risks and options for dealing with an oil spill in the Arctic. Its website outlines "prolonged periods of darkness, extreme cold, distant infrastructure, presence of sea ice offshore and a higher cost of operating" as factors needing special consideration in the region. "Safety and respect for the environment and communities" are listed as essential.

An aerial view of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise expedition to the Arctic Circle (Photo: Danile Beltra)

Greenpeace is concerned about the impacts of oil on Arctic waters

Environment campaigners say this is not happening in the Arctic. They fear commercial development will have detrimental effects on the unique ecosystems of the Arctic region. Oil - whether it comes from shipping or drilling - takes much longer to disappear in cold waters. 24 years after the Exxon Valdez tanker accident off the coast of Alaska, there are still traces of oil in the environment. Experts are concerned that oil companies do not currently have the technology to deal with an oil spill under the ice.

Rising interest

The European Union has initiated a "Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment of Development of the Arctic," scheduled to be completed in 2014. A fact sheet by the project says "Resilience of the Arctic's ecosystems to withstand risk events is weak…. Given that most Arctic hydrocarbon reserves are located offshore, it is of particular concern that there is little knowledge concerning the suitability of existing methods for oil clean-up in ice-covered waters or in areas of broken sea-ice."

The project sees consequences for the fishing industry, risks for traditional lifestyles and new sources of pollution, including black carbon, as other problems relating to Arctic development.

Nevertheless, the European Union continues to view the Arctic as a future source for oil and gas which could increase its energy security in the coming years. Greenpeace, on the other hand, is campaigning for the area around the North Pole to be declared a sanctuary and protected from drilling or other industrial exploitation.

A vicious circle

As well as the need to protect the unique nature of the Arctic, Greenpeace, WWF and other environment groups are concerned about the consequences of Arctic oil drilling for the climate. Burning the resulting fossil fuel would produce more CO2 emissions, which are largely responsible for the rise in global temperature which is melting the Arctic ice. In addition to environmental campaign groups, the "Fossil Free Campaign" initiated by US environmentalist Bill McKibben is gaining influence, trying to persuade companies and institutions to withdraw investments from fossil fuel-related enterprises.

Emblem of the maritime court ITLOS in Hamburg

International maritime disputes are dealt with at ITLOS in Hamburg

According to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2012, two-thirds of our known fossil fuel reserves would have to remain in the earth, if the goal of limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius and averting catastrophic climate change is to be reached.

The Russian reaction to the Greenpeace Arctic protest has attracted attention to the race to exploit the Arctic's oil. The Netherlands, where the Arctic Sunrise is registered, brought the case against Russia to the international martime tribunal in Hamburg, appealing for the release of the ship and its crew. Despite Russia boycotting the ITLOS hearing, the court is expected to announce its verdict later this month.

In parallel, at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, negotiators are trying to make progress towards binding emissions reductions. A breakthrough seems unlikely. Meanwhile, business continues as usual in the far north of the planet - and the Arctic continues to melt twice as fast as the global average.

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