What a misanthropic bunch of stunts
Greenpeace’s latest stunt in the Arctic suggests that what it really fears is human exploration and expansion.
When I was at university – in the days before climate change was the defining issue of our times – a good friend of mine was a keen environmentalist, a bolshie woman who wanted to go out and stop nuclear tests, save whales and generally change the world. So she called up Greenpeace to find out how to get involved with their protests. She was told that they didn’t really need or want lots of people doing that kind of thing, and asked if she would like to send a donation instead. Feeling thoroughly patronised, she had nothing more to do with the organisation.
Well, the patronising stunt-performers are back. On Tuesday, four Greenpeace protesters boarded a drilling rig, the Stena Don in Baffin Bay near Greenland, ‘to stop the drilling and defend the Arctic’. As the four activists hang shivering from the sides of the rig, they are promoting all sorts of misplaced alarmism while helping to bolster Greenpeace’s coffers.
The Stena Don is one of two vessels that will drill up to four wells in water between 300 and 500 metres deep off the west coast of Greenland. While there has been no great oil find to date, the exploration has found gas, leading Cairn Energy’s chief executive, Sir Bill Gammell, to declare: ‘I am encouraged that we have early indications of a working hydrocarbon system with our first well in Greenland, confirming our belief in the exploration potential.’
Figures published by the US Geological Survey in 2008 estimated that there are 90 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic as a whole, enough to provide for the entire world’s current oil consumption for about a year. Of this, about 50 billion barrels may be found around Greenland. Given that Greenland is the biggest island in the world (assuming Australia is a continent), yet has a population of just 56,000, this could be an enormous windfall both for the local communities and for Denmark, which has formal control over the territory.
No wonder that Greenland’s prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, is less than impressed by Greenpeace’s protest: ‘Greenpeace has once again succeeded in impeding Greenland’s opportunities to secure the economic foundation for its people’s condition of life. The Greenland government regards the Greenpeace action as being a very grave and illegal attack on Greenland’s constitutional rights. It is highly disturbing that Greenpeace, in its chase on media attention, breaks the safety regulations put in place to protect people and the environment.’
In a letter which it is asking concerned individuals to send to Bill Gammell, Greenpeace argues that the Arctic is a ‘barometer of the health of the planet’ and says the Arctic plays ‘a major role in the regulation of the global climate by acting like a giant reflective shield limiting the amount of sun and heat absorbed by the Earth’. More fundamentally, the letter notes: ‘As a society we’re currently dependent on oil and getting off that dependence will take time. However, chasing the last drops of oil in some of the most vulnerable parts of the planet is not moving us in the right direction.’ With the Gulf oil spill fresh in everyone’s memories, the letter suggests that ‘drilling in the Arctic is too risky and a spill in the region would be catastrophic’.
Greenpeace’s arguments are actually very flimsy. A few oil rigs dotted around the Arctic will have no impact on the ice cap’s ability to reflect solar radiation. The Stena Don is drilling in waters that are between 300 and 500 metres deep, far shallower than those at the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, the scene of the recent major oil spill, where the water is 1,500 metres deep. As such, this Arctic drilling is considerably less tricky than that in the Gulf.
As for ‘chasing the last drops of oil’, a little perspective is required. Greens like to assure us that we have reached, or are about to reach, the point of ‘peak oil’. That means that supplies of oil will start to decline just as fast-developing economies like China and India push global demand up sharply. The result, it is claimed, will be escalating oil prices and greater hardship for all. Yet whether the claims about peak oil are really true is the subject of considerable debate – and it is worth noting that the International Energy Agency expects there to be ‘comfortable spare capacity’ until at least 2015 and there are ‘at least 40 years’ supply at current consumption rates, even if we ignore potential new discoveries. But if we have run out of big new oil fields to exploit, it surely makes sense to exploit every opportunity to soften the transition to a post-oil economy. The Arctic may ultimately only be able to provide part of that respite, but it will still be invaluable at a time when alternative energy technologies like wind and solar power are simply unable to fill the gap in energy demand.
As long as there is demand for oil, companies will strive to find it and drill for it. If renewable technologies were really so great, why the hell would we bother sending drilling rigs to the frozen north?
What is really unique about the polar regions is that they have been, up until now, pretty much useless to humanity. Preserving them in their current condition might make greens sleep easier at night, but it won’t help mankind one jot.
What really galls environmentalists is what this current exploration of the icy waters of the Arctic symbolises: the potential that humanity might finally become truly global in its reach. Currently, most of the world’s population lives in the relatively comfortable surroundings of the temperate and tropical regions. But there’s a whole swathe of the world we’ve barely touched. Could we be making more of the Arctic and Antarctic for the benefit of all? Such a prospect is clearly terrifying to those who would prefer we human beings reined in our ambitions and settled for what we have.
Greenpeace both promotes and appeals to these low horizons. While it may not stop the development of the energy industry in the Arctic Circle, it will use a stunt like this current occupation to rattle the tin for a few more million quid to promote its anti-people ideas. While Greenpeace likes to talk about ‘a new era, beyond oil’, greens would prefer it if we didn’t do anything really new at all.
Of course we should demand high safety standards from oil companies – and that means everywhere, not just in polar bear country – but we should have no truck with the backward sensibilities of those who, by demanding we stop development, would prevent the kind of economic growth that is the bedrock of improving living standards for all.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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