Prirazlomnaya Platform Greenpeace Incident

During last month (September 18), Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise approached the Prirazlomnaya offshore oil drilling platform and Greenpeace activists onboard the vessel attempted to board the facility. Their aim was to protest onboard the Prirazlomnaya platform in order to draw attention to the issue of the expansion of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Their efforts were stopped by the border guards and their vessel was taken in tow to Murmansk port.  A total of 30 crewmembers were detained.

2013.10.07 - Prirazlomnaya Platform Greenpeace Incident

It should be noted that during August 2012 another Greenpeace team, including Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, had interrupted the operation of the same platform (Barents Observer – Greenpeace occupying Prirazlomnaya platform).

Up until now the Russian authorities have charged Greenpeace’s activists with piracy. This action by the Russian authorities, has resulted in the Netherlands launching legal proceedings against Russia, arguing that Greenpeace activists onboard the Dutch-registered ship Arctic Sunrise were unlawfully detained (Reuters – Netherlands takes legal action against Russia over Greenpeace activists). Additionally Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo stated that piracy “is an extreme and disproportionate charge…” (Reuters – Russia Charges Greenpeace Activists with Piracy). For reference the definition of piracy as per article 101 of the 1982 UNCLOS is as follows:

“Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i)  on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in sub-paragraph (a) or (b).”

So it is left to a legal analysis to conclude if the acts of the protesters can be considered as piracy or not and someone could even dare to say that in this case we are “playing” with words since  the first thing that comes to someone’s mind when he sees the word piracy is the situation in east Africa and the west coast of Africa and the Far East and not the picture of some protesters trying to board a platform or a ship with the aim, most probably, to place a protest banner.

On the other hand Gennady Lyubin, head of Gazprom’s offshore oil division stated that “the aim of such a protest may have been to break into the facility and destabilize its work for some time”, adding also that “the consequences of the Greenpeace activists’ actions could have been entirely unpredictable and for the divers, quite tragic” (Bloomberg – Greenpeace’s Arctic 30 Charged as Gazprom Says ‘Tragedy’ Averted). By this statement the head of Gazprom’s offshore oil division highlighted the issue of safety during this incident, something which has not drawn any special attention in the media so far.

From the perspective of the safety of the offshore platform’s operations, it is really dangerous to have individuals boarding without authorization, especially in the way the Greenpeace protesters did. The operation of an offshore platform is an activity requiring great coordination, safety awareness and continuous vigilance. Onboard an offshore platform there is work being conducted in multiple areas simultaneously, requiring at the same time great deal of concentration and safety awareness by the workers.

The activities onboard an offshore platform are varied, but all are evolving around the successful boring of a well and subsequent oil production. Such procedures can be hazardous, since it involves manual handling of heavy machinery.

Another aspect of the work taking place on an offshore platform is the flow of the oil up through the well by placing tubing into the casing, and a packer down the outside of the tubing. At the top of the tubing, a ‘Christmas tree’ is attached which contains a number of valves to allow the control of the resulting flow of oil from the well. Due to pressures at which the oil is found, ‘blow-outs’ may take place. Blow-outs occur when the gas pressure of the well suddenly forces the oil up and out at extreme forces which can damage the platform if not controlled. For that reason blow-out valves are placed on the seabed in order to stabilise the pressure and control the well. Therefore the crew of an offshore platform must be able to continuously monitor and understand the environment and the work in overall in order to be able to keep accident risk to a minimum. Incidents that may cause distraction to the crew of a platform (even if the incidents by themselves are not posing any immediate danger to the crew e.g. the boarding of the protesters) may subsequently cause loss of safety awareness that can lead to hazardous occurrences.

One more example of high risk work that takes place during the operation of a platform is the use of divers at various places underneath the platform, depending on the task, as part of maintenance or production processes. This kind of work might be carried out in coordination with crew onboard the platform. In such cases special work permits are being issued (work permits are issued for other types of work as well) with specific instructions in order to ensure the safety of those working under the sea. If a parameter is to change (e.g. the boarding of the protesters might cause confusion) the entire work permit might need to be reviewed or withdrawn due to the fact that new factors need to be considered, that were not evaluated in the beginning.

Moreover, in respect of the platform the entire incident may be considered as a security breach. Although the activists were trying to protest in a peaceful manner, something could have gone wrong in respect of their safety (as it has happened in the past) and one cannot always act on the basis that there will be no reaction from the one he/she is taking actions against.

Regarding the incident Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the 3rd Arctic Forum in Salekhard stated that he didn’t now what really happened at Prirazlomnaya, but it is obvious that the protesters are not pirates although it is totally clear that they were violating international law when they approached the platform, breaking the safety distance. (Barents Observer – Greenpeace activists are no pirates, but they broke the law). The safety distance President Putin is referring to is the so called “safety zones” as per UNCLOS articles. For example UNCLOS article 60 item 6 states:

All ships must respect these safety zones and shall comply with generally accepted international standards regarding navigation in the vicinity of artificial islands, installations, structures and safety zones.

Such safety zones are usually no more than 500 meters from the offshore installation.

Surely Greenpeace’s protest draw the attention needed to highlight the issue of Arctic Ocean exploitation, but it would be wise from all stakeholders involved to resolve the incident since there is no need for any further diplomatic frictions.

Eventually, as oil and gas resources in easily accessible areas diminish, exploration for such resources will be expanded undoubtedly in the Arctic Ocean as well. Due to the nature of the Arctic Ocean, it is true that additional precautions need to be taken to ensure that no accident will take place and that even if an accident occurs, the damage will be kept at a minimum.

Finally it should be noted that global majors such as ExxonMobil, Eni, and Statoil have signed deals with Russia to enter the Barents Sea area although production from those companies is not expected to begin before the 2020s.

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