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General view of the Siberian Yenisei river, about 180 km (112 miles) south of Krasnoyarsk, May 23, 2005. Rising in Mongolia, in the Sayan mountains, the Yenisei crosses all of Siberia from south to north to enter the Kara sea.ILYA NAYMUSHIN/Reuters

A Greenpeace icebreaker is defying Russian law and sailing without a permit into that country's northern waters to protest Arctic offshore energy development.

"We're going to carry on into the Northern Sea Route," said crew member Christy Ferguson aboard the Arctic Sunrise.

"I am a little nervous, but I think that what we're doing is really important."

The Arctic Sunrise was sailing towards the Northern Sea Route off Russia's Arctic coast Friday with the intent of entering the Kara Sea, where Russian energy companies and western multinationals are looking for oil and gas.

Offshore oil drilling is considered environmentally risky because there's no effective, reliable way to clean oil out of ice-choked, wind-chopped waters. One of the areas being explored is in a Russian national marine park.

Russia's offshore energy reserves, thought to be the richest of all the Arctic nations, are a priority for President Vladimir Putin, who has said he wants $500-billion worth of investment there over the next 30 years.

Western majors including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Eni are all present, mostly as minority partners with state-owned companies Gazprom and Rosneft. ExxonMobil and Rosneft have said the Kara Sea could see its first test wells next year.

The purpose of the Arctic Sunrise trip is to see what's going on in a hard-to-access region and to stage peaceful protests, said Ferguson, a Canadian and one of 28 people from 15 different countries on board.

Russia requires a permit for ships to enter the Northern Sea Route. Greenpeace duly applied, Ferguson said, submitting documents from an internationally recognized organization stating the Arctic Sunrise was more ice-capable than any of the energy exploration ships in the region.

The ship also has an ice pilot aboard, even though there's no sea ice at the ship's destination.

Although more than 400 ships have been permitted into the waterway this season, Greenpeace was turned down three times.

Each time was for a different reason, said Ferguson. Each application took the maximum time available.

"It seems that they're giving us the runaround and trying to put us off and use bureaucratic technicalities to keep us from entering the area," she said.

"The fact they're denying us permission and stalling us and trying to keep us out of the area makes it important for us to go in now. Part of what we're addressing here is a lack of scrutiny of oil exploration in remote places, especially the Russian Arctic."

Igor Novikov of the Russian embassy in Ottawa said there has been no attempt to block the Arctic Sunrise.

"As far as I can see the problem is just technical," he said in an email. "It's not the only vessel refused (permission) to enter the Russian Arctic, so there is nothing special about it."

Novikov said he couldn't speculate on the consequences of the icebreaker proceeding without a permit.

The Arctic Sunrise is entering legally uncharted waters, said Arctic international law expert Michael Byers.

"No ship has ever sailed the Northern Sea Route without Moscow's permission," he said.

Byers said Greenpeace is probably relying on international conventions that allow ships to pass, without conditions, through choke points such as straits.

It's the same argument that the United States uses to counter Canada's position that the Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway, he said.

"Does Greenpeace really want to support the U.S. position that the Northern Sea Route – and, by logical extension, the Northwest Passage – are essentially Wild West zones where coastal state powers to regulate for shipping safety and pollution prevention purposes are tightly constrained?

"Greenpeace's efforts to draw attention to the risks of Arctic offshore oil production, while laudable, could in this instance have unintended long-term consequences for environmental protection, including in Canada's Arctic."

Ferguson said drawing attention to potentially damaging development is worth the risk.

Russian environmental standards are lower, she said.

Russia does not require the presence of a second rig to drill a relief well in case of a blowout, as do Canada and the United States. She said Rosneft has one of the worst spill records in the world.

Ferguson said the crew isn't sure how it will respond if confronted by Russian authorities.

"We will proceed peacefully," she said.

"I can't really speculate too much on what we'll do. We'll really have to assess that when the time comes."