Why I Risked My Life to Stop Arctic Drilling


This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.

Basil Tsimoyianis stares out from a support speedboat in the Russian Arctic waters, watching his friends get blasted with a water cannon.  In a few minutes, Basil will be riding out to switch places with them, relieving them from the cannon’s icy pounding. The cannon, normally used in case of fires on the oil rig, now shoots out in a steady bend, drowning his friends whose boat is chained to the anchor of a ship filled with workers — many of whom are frustrated that they can’t lift the ship’s anchor and get to work on the oil rig today.

I don’t want to do this.

But there’s no time to think any more than that; there’s a job to be done. Basil and the others begin preparing to take over for the activists chained to the Anna Akhmatova, a passenger vessel that carries workers to Prirazlomnaya, Gazprom’s oil rig. Gazprom is a huge oil and gas company planning to drill for oil in the Arctic. But if workers can’t get to Gazprom’s rig, the company’s preparation for oil drilling in the Arctic will temporarily be disrupted. Basil moves about, working up a little sweat, as he adjusts his three layers of insulating gear — and then they’re off.

The wind brushes Basil’s face as the speedboat dashes through the freezing, gray waters. Basil’s eyes gaze ahead at the powerful arch.

Like a river flying through the air.

It’s hard for him to notice much else, like the rainbow brightening up the cloudy sky.

As the speedboat zooms closer, Basil’s eyes dart to his friends, huddled in a tiny boat, chained to the anchor of huge ship. They all hold up wooden shields that take some of the water’s beating.

His eyes close as the speedboat nears. The water from the cannon sprinkles him. And then, it’s suddenly gushing, as bodies change boats, and Basil grabs a shield.

This is far worse than the hoses.

The Setup

It’s three days earlier, on August 24, 2012 and Basil is on one of two portable ledges with tents on them on the side of Gazprom’s monstrous oil rig. An hour ago, Basil and five other Greenpeace activists from around the world had climbed up the Prirazlomnaya, in teams of three, using its mooring lines. The teams each set up a portaledge.

Basil shares a portaledge with Terry Christenson and Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director, who starts taking media calls. Kumi explains that Gazprom is planning on beginning its oil drilling operations early next year, making it the first company to start commercial oil production in the offshore Arctic. He passionately describes how, the carbon dioxide admissions from drilling will continue to cause the ice in the Arctic to melt, at a time when 75 percent of Arctic sea ice has already been lost. Yet, sea ice is what keeps the planet cool, reflecting sunlight. Plus, if oil drilling in the Arctic begins, Kumi emphasizes, an oil spill will happen, causing irreversible damages.

Basil looks up and sees workers gathering at the rig’s edge. One worker is giving him the finger. Another sneaks him a thumbs-up. Suddenly, Basil sees one of the rig’s massive cranes lowering down toward their portaledge. The crane is carrying a worker, who nears the ledge and says:

“How long will you be here?”

“We plan to be here for awhile. It’s a non-violent protest. We’re not going to harm or damage anything. We’re protesting against Gazprom’s exploration of the Arctic,” Basil answers respectfully. “We will keep this peaceful.”

After all, their goal is to interrupt Gazprom’s operations and raise awareness about the consequences of drilling in the Arctic — and they have enough supplies to last them for several days.

The Hosing

Hours later, icy water showers down on Basil from a fire hose above. Workers are standing on the rig’s edge, fire hoses in hand, aiming for both portaledges. Basil, Terry and Kumi sit wet and shivering.

Why are they doing this?

Basil closes his eyes, but then opens them to assess Terry and Kumi.

“Can you feel your hands and feet?

Terry and Kumi nod.

They talk about the importance of staying hydrated, and they take a sip of water. Basil grabs a banana nut bar — the first and last thing he’ll have to eat throughout the action. And then they talk. And they talk throughout their time — what will amount to 15 hours — on the portaledge. The three talk about family, friends, past actions they’ve done, and why they are here, right now, on the portaledge.

Although Basil didn’t get a chance to share all this with Kumi and Terry, his story goes a little something like this:

Basil grew up near the beach in Connecticut. His father often took him on nature walks. His mother forced him to volunteer at an aquarium when he was 12. And he ended up loving it. One summer, his father threw a Beekeeping For Dummies book at him and said, “Do something with yourself.” So he learned how to beekeep. He thought the environment was beautiful and permanent. And so when his environmental science high school teacher showed the class photos of deforestation in the Amazon, his heart sank.

Basil went to the University of Vermont and studied environmental science. He wrote a paper on Greenpeace, which led him to interview someone at the environmental organization. He asked about volunteering at Greenpeace, and decided to drop out of school. His parents, though, convinced him to take a leave of absence. And so he took one semester off and did a Greenpeace Semester. He came back to college and founded a student group called Forest Crimes Unit, which demanded the college rid itself of the unsustainable Kimberley-Clark toilet paper and purchase recycled toilet paper. Forest Crimes Unit was Basil’s main priority. He held the group’s first meeting in his apartment and borrowed his friend’s projector. After a yearlong campaign, Forest Crimes Unit was victorious.

Basil graduated and went on to do volunteer and contract work for Greenpeace, including climbing Mount Rushmore and dropping a banner that read “America Honors Leaders Not Politicians, Stop Global Warming.” He was arrested that day.

Last May, Basil was hired onto Greenpeace’s Actions Team. When Basil was asked to participate in this action in the Arctic, he sat on it for a few weeks. As a climber for nine years and a Greenpeace advocate for six, he not only felt prepared, but also responsible. After all he has all the skills they needed. He was, though, overwhelmed with fear of the Russian legal system and ending up in a Russian prison. But once he had stopped worrying, he had to face his most difficult challenge: telling his loved ones what he was doing.

The Escape

Now, Basil sits silent, as the stream of water continues to fall on his head. And then on Kumi’s head. And then Terry’s. They lost all communication with Greenpeace, and so they sit on this tiny portaledge on this massive rig in the cold Arctic — both alone and together in many ways.

Take out your video camera.

And he remembers what a photographer, who he admires and once met, told him: “The best image you’ll ever get in your life is when you least want to take out the camera.”

He grabs for it and then focuses it on Terry, who is trying to block the water from hitting the back of his neck.

The Perseverance

Another worker eventually takes over the hosing, relieving the other of his shift.

How long is this going to go on? Why are they doing this?

Basil, Kumi and Terry talk about how it’s likely that these workers, who were steadfast in hosing them, were taking orders from someone higher up.

Kumi’s phone starts to ring.

Basil watches Kumi answer his device and begin an interview. It’s with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! :

“We simply want to make the point that drilling in the Arctic is completely reckless and will accelerate catastrophic climate change. But we are terribly anxious now because they are spraying us heavily with water hoses.” Kumi shouts into the phone. “Gazprom is the oil company that is probably going to be, if we don’t stop them, the first company to start drilling oil in the Arctic … Gazprom doesn’t actually have a license to drill at the moment. It expired 12 days ago. They do not have an oil spill response plan. In fact, what they have is even worse than Shell, and that’s saying a lot. And in the next couple of days, the Arctic Sea minimum ice figures will be released, and that will show that protecting the Arctic North is seriously important. And that is why we are campaigning to declare the Upper Arctic a global sanctuary as a global commons. ”

Basil rubs his cold hands together, as Kumi continues to Goodman:

“We’ve been holding on for the last three hours … We’re going to try and stick around as long as possible, but at this rate, I can’t say whether it will be an hour or more.”

A shiver runs down Basil’s spine.

The End of the Beginning

Several hours later, the bars of the portaledge Basil, Kumi and Terry sit on are starting to bend. Although this portaledge is designed to last several months in the mountains, it has been destroyed in nearly 15 hours.

Basil later makes the connection between the portaledge and the oil rig.

 Just like the portaledge, the rig can be designed to withstand anything, but there will be an oil spill.

The hosing is still heavy and hypothermia is becoming more and more of a concern. Kumi connects with those aboard the Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace’s ship. Together, they all decide its time to go back. After all, they have disrupted the whole workday on the Prirazlomnaya, and their safety is cause for concern. Greenpeace sends out a support speedboat.

Kumi is the first one on the boat. Basil and Terry drop all of their bags and gear in the water for pick-up by the support vessel. The hosing, which had briefly stopped as Kumi descended, continues in full force. Basil can barely see as he and Terry descend, working their way down the enormous rig to Greenpeace’s speedboat. When Basil and Terry make it down, the group goes to assist the other three activists, who were on the other portaledge. They are also being hosed profusely as they attempt to descend.

With everyone safely in the boat, Basil feels a bit of relief. As the activists board the Arctic Sunrise, they are greeted with hugs, some food and open ears. The activists ask about media reports, to know what the world is saying, to see if anybody is listening. But the Internet is down. So they chat about their feats among themselves. After talking about their day, the activists begin making new plans.

They are going to go out there again.

The Water Cannon

This is far worse than the hoses.

Basil holds up the shield as the water from the cannon pounds down on him. With the wind hitting his body, too, it all feels like a hurricane.

Him and another activist on the boat, Georgia Hirsty, occasionally shout to each other, but much of it is inaudible amidst the hammering stream.

Basil closes his eyes. He then remembers his video camera and picks it up to capture the madness.

An hour later, Basil is still in the boat, holding up his shield against the relentless water. He’s soaked, and freezing, and tired.

Greenpeace has been working for Arctic protection for decades so that it wouldn’t have to come to this. All the petitions they sent, to all the various government departments in various countries. All of the 2 million signatures they gathered. All to save the Arctic. All receiving no response. 

No one is actually hearing all that.

Basil buckles down, prepared to fight back against the icy blast.

About two hours later, the water pressure suddenly gets higher, and then, whoever is handling the water cannon shifts it to directly hit their boat. The boat begins filling up with water. And before long Basil and Georgia find themselves ejected from the boat.  

After the support vessel quickly picks up the activists and hooks up their boat to tow, Basil learns that all the workers on the Anna Akhmatova, the huge passenger vessel he was chained to, were not able to get to work on the Prirazlomnaya that day. By the time Basil’s boat swamped, there was only one hour left to their workday. And so, with that, and with Greenpeace’s continued presence in the water, the workers didn’t bother going.

We stopped business as usual.

The Future

Both Gazprom and Shell recently announced that they will halt their oil drilling plans in the Arctic for this year — a huge victory for Greenpeace, the activists and more importantly, the environment. There’s still much more work to be done to protect the Arctic. The Arctic Sunrise is still in the Arctic Ocean, with independent scientists on board who are studying and documenting sea ice as it declines and reaches its lowest levels in history. Greenpeace also continues its Save the Arctic campaign, pushing for a ban to oil drilling, industrial fishing and military buildup in the Arctic by declaring it a global sanctuary.  

Basil believes that his actions brought awareness to possible drilling in the Arctic. He thinks that when it comes to the environment and the way we live life, more and more people will begin to talk about the state of society, and then ultimately take action, perhaps even putting their own bodies on the line as activists around the world are doing.

It appears that as our economic, political and social structures grow ever more powerful, true change seems harder and harder to create via the traditional fashion of organizing or protesting. And so, from locking themselves to equipment to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline construction to getting arrested in waves while demanding an end to corporate money in politics, people are risking their livelihoods and their lives to fight for a better world. For it seems, the only thing they have to lose is… well, everything.

And it looks as if people will rise up to do the right thing — whether or not they think the fight is winnable, whether or not they even still have hope.

“I don’t have time to hope anymore, ya know? It’s like, I just have time to move toward the right direction,” Basil said. “So for me, it’s not about hope it’s about earning my place in the larger ecological system … it’s about earning a position where I can walk on this planet with my head held high.”

He continued, “When I was hoping, I was still sitting and talking about things a lot. And the second I kind of stopped doing that, that’s when I started to put myself out there in a different way than I’d ever thought I’d do.”

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