‘Arctic 30’ protest curbed region’s oil rush, activists say as documentary airs

Greenpeace activists say their protest against Russian drilling in the Arctic in 2013 helped curb the “oil rush” in the region, as a documentary series on the dramatic events is released.

Armed Russian security officers detained protesters and the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in the Arctic’s Pechora Sea as they tried to stage a direct action against Gazprom’s offshore Prirazlomnaya platform.

The 28 activists and two freelance journalists on the protest voyage – who became known as the “Arctic 30” – were detained in Russia, prompting a global campaign to free the group, spearheaded by their families and Greenpeace.

They were eventually bailed and granted amnesty by the Russian authorities after several months.

The On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace documentary series for the BBC details the dramatic events of the protest, the seizing of the vessel and its crew by Russian authorities and the efforts to free them.

At a preview screening, Greenpeace activists featured in the documentary said they had directed attention on the Arctic oil rush which was happening at the time, with major fossil fuel companies pushing into the region.

The protest’s co-ordinator, Frank Hewetson, said: “Now you only have Norway, and you only have Russia, we advanced the campaign by 10 years or more.

“You don’t get anybody drilling in the Arctic any more apart from those two countries.”

Fellow Greenpeace campaigner Faiza Ouhlason said: “This was 10 and a half years ago, late 2013, the talk about climate change was almost non-existent.

“At the time, there were more than 50 oil companies lined up, not just in Russia, but throughout the whole Arctic, going for the bids, going for the licensing.

“After we did our action there was so much attention on that area, there was attention for us and the fact we were in prison, but also why we were there.

“In the two years after, a lot of companies pushed out, there was just a lot more scrutiny.

“We paid a price but I think it had an impact, that I don’t think we would have seen, at least not back then,” she said.

Former Greenpeace head of communications Ben Stewart said once the team had been detained, the number one objective was to get them out.

But he also said campaigning was about bringing controversy to an issue that no one was talking about, and direction action could speed up the national and international conversation.

“Climate change is geographically and chronologically remote from the people who cause it.

“And so if you’re looking to bring it home and tell a story, going up there and taking on Arctic oil rigs is one way to do it and by controversialising it I think we did speed up the demise of the Arctic oil rush.

“It’s still happening. But people started talking about it during and after the Arctic 30 thing,” he said.

Quizzed on whether they knew in advance what would happen to them, Ms Ouhlason said that only the year before, Greenpeace had staged the same action targeting the oil platform with a very different reaction.

Mr Hewetson said a failure to target Russian state oil company Gazprom would lead to accusations Greenpeace was concentrating on “safe” western oil exploration such as the North Sea.

The documentary also seeks to present the Russian point of view of events, highlighting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s determination to protect what was seen as a key piece of the country’s infrastructure.

It uses publicly available footage from the Russian coast guard and interviews with then head of communications for Gazprom – who is now fighting against Russia for his native Ukraine and was interviewed in a bomb shelter.

Other footage in the series, which is made by Curve Media for the BBC, includes key material shot by Greenpeace as their vessel was boarded, which was hidden in one of the activist’s shoes and smuggled out of a Russian prison in a matchbox.

On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace is on BBC Two and on iPlayer from Sunday June 9, at 9pm.