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Greenpeace Temporarily Blockades A Shell Vessel, As the Oil Major Begins Drilling in the Arctic

Activists rappelled off Portland, Oregon's St. Johns Bridge, hanging about 100 feet off the surface and blocking the ship for nearly two days.
Photo by Steve Dipaola/Greenpeace USA/EPA

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The icebreaker that's key to Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic is heading back north after authorities broke a dramatic blockade on Friday by environmentalists in Oregon.

The environmental group Greenpeace claimed a moral victory in delaying the 380-foot icebreaker Fennica, which is carrying safety equipment required for Shell to fully explore its lease off northern Alaska. But the company said it started drilling Thursday night in anticipation of the ship's arrival.

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A squad of 13 Greenpeace activists who rappelled off Portland, Oregon's St. Johns Bridge bottled up the icebreaker in the Willamette River on Thursday morning. They hung about 100 feet off the surface with lines suspended between them that blocked the ship, Greenpeace climber Dan Cannon told VICE News.

"Once it was in sight, we descended from our camps and waited there," Cannon said. "It came fairly close, but we lowered our lines even further and made sure that it could not pass … and then it turned around and went back to the dock."

The activists hung beneath the picturesque bridge since before dawn Wednesday, red and yellow banners streaming behind them, in preparation for the Fennica to move. They'd vowed to stay there in the week's 100-degree heat as long as needed to keep the ship from leaving Portland, where it was patched up after scraping bottom off Alaska in early July.

But the ship passed the bridge Thursday evening after Portland-area police and firefighters and the US Coast Guard forced open a hole in the bridge blockade and in the flotilla of kayaks that joined it in the water below. The vessel had made it to the open Pacific by Friday morning, Petty Officer First Class George Degener, a US Coast Guard spokesman, told VICE News.

The climbers are about to spend their second night suspended from the bridge, grateful for all the support. — Greenpeace USA (@greenpeaceusa)July 30, 2015

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Now that the ship is en route, Shell said the hired drill rig Polar Pioneer had begun drilling the upper part of its planned well Thursday evening.

"We remain committed to operating safely and responsibly and adding to Shell's long history of exploration offshore Alaska," the company said in a written statement.

US officials estimate nearly 90 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the Arctic seafloor. And with carbon emissions from fossil fuels warming the region roughly twice as fast as lower latitudes, the ocean's shrinking ice cover has opened up new opportunities to tap into those potential reserves — even as scientists say burning more of those reserves will only worsen climate change.

Meanwhile, Shell's fleet has been harried at nearly every step by opponents who say the company's disastrous 2012 attempt to find oil off Alaska — as well as the damage to the Fennica at the outset of this year's work — shows it can't be trusted to work safely in the harsh Arctic. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say they hope the blockade will convince President Barack Obama to reconsider Shell's permits.

"President Obama must listen to science, common sense, and the American people and say 'Shell No' to drilling in the Arctic," the Sierra Club said in a written statement praising the blockade.

Some of the activists who took part in the blockade are likely to be cited for blocking the free passage of shipping, but federal authorities haven't yet decided how many, Degener said.

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"We want people to understand there are consequences for actions that are in violation of federal law," he said.

Related: Shell's Arctic Drilling Is Far More Risky Than the Company Is Telling Shareholders, Say Conservationists

Greenpeace spokeswoman Cassady Sharp said none of its volunteers were in custody Friday morning. But while the blockade was under way, Shell won a court order that slapped the environmental group with $2,500 in fines for every hour it blocked the Fennica — a tab that's likely to run to nearly $20,000, Sharp said.

Despite that, the activists came off the bridge in "pretty good spirits," she told VICE News.

"I think they really felt like they accomplished what they came here to do, which was to stop Shell as long as they possibly could," she said.

The Interior Department has allowed Shell to start drilling in the remote Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles off Alaska's northern coast. But it can't start tapping into the part of the seabed that it expects to hold oil and gas until a device designed to control a Deepwater Horizon-style undersea blowout is in place — and that gear is on board the Fennica.

Shell insists that it can drill safely off Alaska, and federal regulators have imposed strict limits on its operations in an effort to protect the seas and wildlife around its leases. The company will be operating at far shallower depths than the doomed Deepwater Horizon, which uncorked the worst offshore oil spill in US history when it blew up and sank off Louisiana in 2010.

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Related: Is It Okay to Drill in the Arctic? It's Complicated, According to the Obama Administration

But when Shell started drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012, the feds halted the work because its containment device failed tests. Then an engine-room fire put the drill ship Noble Discoverer out of commission. And at the season's end, the drill platform Kulluk broke loose from its tugs and ran aground in a storm off Alaska's southern coast.

In December, Noble Discoverer's owners pleaded guilty to eight federal felony counts and paid $12.2 million in fines for trying to cover up the failure of a key piece of anti-pollution gear and the subsequent dumping of oily water from its engine room. The same piece of equipment broke down during a Coast Guard inspection in Honolulu, Hawaii in April, resulting in the ship being held for a day until repairs could be made.

Thursday, one of Oregon's two US senators, Jeff Merkley, called on Shell to give up on its "reckless" Arctic bid "before it is too late."

"Human civilization already faces enormous challenges from climate change," Merkley, a Democrat, wrote in The Huffington Post on Thursday. "We must take steps to alleviate this danger, not make it worse — and for Shell that means demonstrating global leadership by deciding to not put the world at risk by tapping into untouched and treacherous oil reserves in the Arctic."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl