Environmental campaigners slip through security boats to scale Cairn Energy oil rig in dawn raid.
Greenpeace claims to have shut down offshore drilling by a British oil company at a controversial site in the Artic after four climbers began an occupation of the rig just after dawn.
The environment campaigners said the four protesters evaded a small flotilla of armed Danish navy and police boats which have been guarding the rigs in Baffin Bay off Greenland since the Greenpeace protest ship Esperanza arrived last week. The rigs are operated by the Edinburgh-based oil exploration company Cairn Energy, which last week prompted world-wide alarm among environmentalists after disclosing it had found the first evidence of oil or gas deposits under the Artic.
Several multinational oil companies, including Exxon. Chevron and Shell, are waiting for permission from Greenland to begin deep sea drilling in the Arctic's pristine waters.
Campaigners claim this led to a dangerous rush to exploit one of the world's last major untapped reserves in one of its most fragile locations. The US Geological Survey last year estimated there may be 90bn barrels of oil and 50tn cubic metres of gas across the Arctic.
The campaign group said: "At dawn this morning our expert climbers in inflatable speed boats dodged Danish Navy commandos before climbing up the inside of the rig and hanging from it in tents suspended from ropes, halting its drilling operation.
"The climbers have enough supplies to occupy the hanging tents for several days. If they succeed in stopping drilling for just a short time then the operators, Britain's Cairn Energy, will struggle to meet a tight deadline to complete the exploration before winter ice conditions force it to abandon the search for oil off Greenland until next year."
The occupation comes after a nine-day stand-off between Greenpeace and the Danish navy, which has sent its frigate Vaedderen to the area, deploying elite Danish commandos on high-speed boats to patrol a 500m exclusion zone around the rigs.
Last week the Danes warned the Esperanza it would be forcibly boarded and its captain arrested if it breached the security zone. After Greenpeace launched its helicopter to take photographs, the security area was extended to include a 1,800m high air exclusion zone.
Greenpeace argues that the Arctic drilling programme is extremely perilous because of the sea ice and intense weather conditions in the region, and claims it is one of the 10 most dangerous drilling sites in the world. The Baffin Bay area is known as "iceberg alley". Last week, it filmed a support vessel trying to break up an iceberg using high pressure hoses.
It says the risks posed by this operation go "far beyond" the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; in the Arctic an oil spill would destroy the region's vulnerable and untouched habitats, while the cold water would prevent any oil from quickly breaking up. Any emergency operation to tackle a disaster would encounter huge technical and logistical problems in such a remote area.
Cairn Energy argues it is there at Greenland's invitation, to help bolster and strengthen the island's economy. It also insisted its drilling operations obeyed some of the world's strictest environmental and safety regulations. "We've put procedures in place to give the highest possible priority to safety and environmental protection," it said.
It emerged last week that BP had withdrawn from applying to join in the Greenland oil exploration programme, a direct consequence of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Sim McKenna, one of the Greenpeace climbers on board the Cairn rig, said: "We've got to keep the energy companies out of the Arctic and kick our addiction to oil, that's why we're going to stop this rig from drilling for as long as we can.
"The BP Gulf oil disaster showed us it's time to go beyond oil. The drilling rig we're hanging off could spark an Arctic oil rush, one that would pose a huge threat to the climate and put this fragile environment at risk."
Morten Nielsen, deputy head of Greenland police, said the four protesters would be arrested and prosecuted. "The position of the Greenlandic police is that this is a clear violation of the law, the penal code of Greenland. The perpetrators will be prosecuted by the Greenlandic authorities," he said.
"But what we intend to do, how and when, is an operational detail it wouldn't be smart to advise Greenpeace about." Speaking from the island's capital, Nuuk, Nielsen confirmed that the police had rescue vessels close by the protesters in case any fell into the water, which was only a few degrees above freezing. He denied the police and navy had been outwitted by the protesters setting off at dawn.
"We have to evaluate the downside of any interception," he said. "The highest value we have to preserve is life and if the result of intercepting the Greenpeace activists would bring the police or for that matter the activists' lives in jeopardy, we are not going to intercept right now."