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Protesters from Greenpeace in the water outside the rig yard in Ølen, western Norway. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Exxon Begins Drilling Russia's Pristine Arctic Waters

Despite U.S. sanctions, drilling marks business-as-usual for international oil giant

Lauren McCauley

Despite increasing western sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, Exxon Mobil has begun drilling their first well in Russia's pristine Arctic territory on Saturday.

"Today, commercial success is driven by efficient international cooperation," Reuters reported Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying on a video conference with Glenn Waller, ExxonMobil's lead manager in Russia, and Igor Sechin, CEO of Exxon's Russian partner Rosneft, which currently has sanctions imposed against it by the United States.

"Businesses, including Russian and foreign companies, perfectly realize that and despite certain current political difficulties, pragmatism and common sense prevail, and we are pleased to hear that," Putin continued.

The West Alpha drilling rig, brought in by the oil giant from Norway, is the first to tap the earth beneath the Kara Sea. Environmental campaigners have long-warned that an oil spill in the Arctic would be devastating to the unique and unspoiled Arctic ecosystem. The territory slated for drilling, the Akademichesky field in the East- Prinovozemelsky -1 license  block, overlaps the Russian Arctic National Park ad threatens the wildlife at the nearby Novaya Zemlya Russian National Park, according to Greenpeace.

Further, the Russian territory does not require the presence of a relief rig, which would be critical to intercepting a spill before it spreads to Arctic ice.

"An oil spill in these icy areas will be impossible to clean up, and there is no point to go to these extreme areas to drill for oil that the world cannot afford to burn anyway - if we are to stay within safe climate targets,” said Truls Gulowsen, Campaign Manager Greenpeace Norway. This spring, Greenpeace activists aboard the Esperanza vessel protested in the waters of Ølen, Norway as the rig was being prepared for drilling.

In a related development, Greenpeace's vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, returned to the Netherlands on Saturday—almost a year after Russian officials seized the ship and detained 30 activists and journalists for protesting at an offshore oil rig owned by Russian state oil giant Gazprom.

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