Cold war Kiwis

By Peter Huck

Two Kiwis protesting against deep-sea oil drilling are caught in the middle of a high-stakes power play

In a happier world, David Haussmann, 49, an electrician, would be home in Reefton right now, with Sarah Watson, who is expecting the couple's second child in the New Year, and Theo, their 3-year-old. And Aucklander John Beauchamp, 51, a veteran of sail charter firms, might be at home in Adelaide with his partner Tania and their dog, Bella.

Instead, the New Zealanders - both seasoned Greenpeace crew members - sit in cells at the SIZOI facility in Murmansk, where the noon temperature was -3°C this week. Both men were detained, along with 26 Greenpeace colleagues and two freelance journalists, after the Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise was seized at gunpoint on September 19 by Russian security forces.

The arrests took place in international waters after six activists tried to climb an offshore oil platform owned by the state energy giant Gazprom, in a campaign to halt deep-sea oil drilling in the Arctic. The Arctic Sunrise was taken to Murmansk and all 30 were charged with piracy, which carries a 10 to 15-year term. Bail was refused for all. An international outcry ensued.

The "Arctic 30," who come from 18 nations, including Russia, have become a clause celebre. This week 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop the piracy charges. The leaders of Germany and Brazil, plus US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expressed concern.

According to John Sauven, Greenpeace UK's executive director, about 1.5 million people have written to their ambassadors expressing concern. He told the Independent newspaper many celebrities had also written to Putin.

On Monday the Netherlands asked the UN's Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg to overturn the piracy charges and free detainees. Greenpeace called the charges "fabrications". Even Putin had doubts. "It is absolutely evident that they are, of course, not pirates," he said. This week the charges were reduced to "hooliganism", with a seven-year jail term.

In Russia hooliganism is a favourite word with which to tar dissidents. Last year, three women from the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot, opponents of Putin, were given two-year prison sentences for this crime.

Greenpeace, which says the Arctic 30 episode is "unprecedented" in 30 years of Russia campaigns, says there is no evidence of hooliganism, although activists violated an exclusion zone around the Gazprom rig [climbed by Greenpeace in a 2012 protest with incident]. Amnesty International calls the charge "absurd and damaging to the rule of law." Indeed, seizing a ship in international waters might be piracy.

The Russians also allege illegal drugs were found. Greenpeace says the Arctic Sunrise is legally required to carry morphine in its medical kit; a drug-sniffing dog gave the vessel a clean ticket before they left Norway.

Meanwhile, the Arctic 30 languish at SIZOI.

Conditions are austere. The cells are cold - heating is inadequate - but they have received warm clothes, extra food, toiletries and writing materials via care parcels.

In a letter released on October 13, "Haussy"- Haussmann - thanked supporters and asked them to "stand up, speak up and be heard".

Otherwise contact with the outside world is via lawyers - one for each detainee, with several meetings a week - embassy officials and the Human Rights Commission, a Russian NGO.

When I asked Isabelle Philippe, the Greenpeace media contact, how they are bearing up she said "most are fine". Each is held separately with Russian inmates. "Obviously, it's hard to cope," said Philippe via Skype from Murmansk. "They're very brave."

Can the activists speak to each other? "It's very difficult. They are allowed out [of their cell] only one hour a day. The Russian authorities are trying to keep them separate. They're very upset they can't speak with one another." About half have phoned home, "which means half have not".

Boredom is reduced by books delivered via the prison library. Acceptable titles include The Great Gatsby, Peter Pan, The Invisible Man, The Lord of the Rings, The Teachings of Don Juan and The House of the Spirits. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was rejected as subversive, a detainee's wife told the Guardian.

"They're bearing up as well as can be expected," agrees Nathan Argent, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace NZ. "But they don't want the world to forget why they are up there. That they stood up on behalf of all of us."

He says the "focus is getting the guys home".

New Zealand appears to be taking a softly softly approach. Mfat told the Herald the New Zealand consul visited the Kiwis on October 17 and "both men remain in good spirits." Argent says John Key's office said the Prime Minister asked Putin at the Bali Apec talks whether he was "aware" of the situation, "which seems a little odd as Putin himself had said two weeks previously they weren't pirates".

Though Russia's hard line has stirred foreign censure, plunging Greenpeace into its worse crisis since 1985, when French agents sank the Auckland-based Rainbow Warrior [also skippered by Arctic Sunrise captain, American Peter Willcox], it demonstrates Moscow's determination to enforce its sovereignty in a resource-rich region of fierce geo-political rivalries. The case is possibly exacerbated by tense relations between Russia and the West on issues as diverse as the Syrian war and gay rights at the Olympics.

The Arctic 30 affair spotlights protests against "frontier" oil in the Arctic and elsewhere, including New Zealand. It involves direct action, legal challenges and intense media campaigns, such as Greenpeace's release this week of computer modelling of an oil spill in our waters, which was dismissed by the industry as "science fiction".

The oil industry must weigh the cost and long lead times of exploiting frontier oil, as concern about oil spills and climate change grows, and renewable energy grabs market share. It is a high-stakes gamble.

Greenpeace has also challenged efforts by Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. Since 2005 Shell has spent US$4.5 billion ($5.4 billion) in a perilous venture full of setbacks, including the grounding of a drill rig in a storm, forcing the company to abandon the 2013 season.

ConocoPhillips also halted its 2014 drilling schedule, citing uncertainty over pending US offshore drilling regulations, as the the US Interior Department examines Shell's safety plans.

"It's not a question of "if" a spill will happen, but "when and where", warns Oasis Earth environmental consultant Rick Steiner. He says the US Government believes the risk of a major Arctic spill is 30 to 50 per cent.

A worst-case blowout scenario for the Chukchi Sea would last 39 days, falling from 61,000 barrels a day, as reservoir pressure dropped, to 19,000 barrels a day after 30 days. Total discharge would be 1.38 million barrels [220 million litres].

Effects are long-lasting. The lethal tide from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout continues to blight Gulf of Mexico habitats. Oil spewed by the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 remains toxic. In an Arctic spill less than 10 per cent recovery is likely, says Steiner, as oil travels with currents, maybe under ice, threatening a transnational event.

"You can dial the risks down," says Steiner. "But you can't get rid of them. People make mistakes. Equipment fails. That will continue to happen."

Ironically, climate change, largely driven by carbons released by burning fossil fuels, has melted polar ice - Arctic summers will likely be ice-free in decades - giving Big Oil a field day.

"The industry plays this hard," says Steiner. "Governments get brought into projects. It's all upsides and insignificant risks. They overstate the benefits and understate the risks."

Such dreams were coloured by a 2008 US Geological Survey that estimated the Arctic could hold up to 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 per cent of natural gas reserves. Russia's enormous economic exclusion zone accounts for about half this bounty.

However, since then the fracking [hydraulic fracturing] boom for natural gas in the US and elsewhere has offered cheaper alternatives closer to markets. At the same time the US is preparing tougher rules for offshore drilling.

Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow and director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institute, suspects the Arctic will not provide "tremendous quantities"of oil and gas in the next 10 to 15 years.

Russia sees a different scenario. Besides extracting oil and gas from the Kara Sea and elsewhere, harvesting fish and extracting minerals - Arctic resources eyed by Canada, China and others - Moscow envisages an ice-free Arctic, serviced by deepwater ports, as a fast Asia-Europe trade route. Last year nine ships took this passage. So far, 46 have followed in 2013.

"As the ice melts they can either export energy eastward to Asia or westward to Europe and America, depending on market conditions," says Ebinger. "But it will take a huge capital investment."

As the Arctic 30 affair shows, Russia is prepared to play hard ball to reap its bonanza.

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