Environmental Activism: Arctic Drilling and Cecil, the Lion

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 4, 2015 5
Shell’s oil lease sites are located little more than 50 miles southwest of Hanna Shoal, an important feeding ground for Arctic walruses. ©Stewart Cohen

Shell’s oil-lease sites are located little more than 50 miles southwest of Hanna Shoal, an important feeding ground for Arctic walruses. ©Stewart Cohen

On July 25, 2015, the MSV Fennica, a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker which was carrying oil-drilling equipment to the Arctic, arrived in Portland, Oregon, for repairs. It was met by a group of protesters from Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, including 13 who hung from ropes attached to the St. Johns Bridge in an attempt to prevent the Fennica from passing under it and several “kayaktivists” who surrounded the carrier to stop its progress.

The Fennica was delayed for about 36 hours, but then it was on its way again. The icebreaker was carrying a capping stack, crucial to stopping any sea-floor oil gusher, such as what happened with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Obama administration had prohibited Shell from drilling deep enough to strike oil unless the Fennica was on-site. But the ship has now joined Shell’s exploration fleet in the Chukchi Sea, where the Transocean Polar Pioneer—a giant oil rig—has commenced initial drilling operations.

Although the protesters failed to stop the Fennica from achieving its ultimate goal, they say they are happy that their actions drew international attention to the issue of drilling for oil in the Arctic.

But did their physical actions truly call more attention to their cause than other methods of protest would have? In this age of social media, do in-the-flesh protests still matter?

The Portland protesters hoped that they could delay the Fennica long enough to prevent Shell from drilling until 2016, giving the Obama administration time for a change-of-heart. ©Finn O’Hara

The Portland protesters hoped that they could delay the “Fennica” long enough to prevent Shell from drilling in the Arctic until 2016. ©Finn O’Hara

Protests past

Greenpeace’s tactics with the Fennica are reminiscent of the protests of the 1960s when sit-ins, mass marches and chaining oneself to a tree or a bulldozer were a protester’s tools of choice.

In a similar vein, the Fennica protesters dropped climbing ropes over the side of Portland’s St. Johns Bridge, then dangled about 100 feet above the waters of the Willamette River. The result was a “human curtain” that they hoped would block the departure of the Fennica from its nearby marine-repair facility.

For decades, scientists have warned that unless we sharply reduce our carbon emissions by 2050 and largely eliminate them by 2075, the effects of climate change—such as rising sea levels and hotter temperatures—will become almost impossible to head off. A recent study found that all the gas and oil beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor should remain untapped in order to avert the worst effects of global warming. And Shell’s lease sites are located only about 55 miles southwest of Hanna Shoal, an important feeding ground for Arctic walruses, whales and other wildlife.

By physically delaying the Fennica’s departure for Alaska, not only did the Portland protesters hope to draw international attention to the dangers of Arctic oil drilling but to shorten Shell’s drilling season. Under its permits from the Department of Interior, Shell has until October 31 before it has to close down its  operations. The environmentalists’ goal was to hold up the Fennica long enough for winter weather to prevent Shell from drilling until 2016. By that time, they thought the Obama administration might rethink the issue.

In reality, however, the short delay of the Fennica’s journey that the protesters did cause will hardly matter in Shell’s schedule. To keep Shell from drilling in 2015, the protesters would have had to detain the Fennica for a lot longer than two days. So, was this ‘60s-style, physical protest effective?

The death of Cecil has caused Zimbabwe to suspend the hunting of wildlife. ©Eric Rock

The death of Cecil has caused Zimbabwe to suspend the hunting of its wildlife, such as this lion. ©Eric Rock

Of course, in the 1960s, we didn’t have the Internet.

Protests future

Another protest-inspiring, environmentally degrading event is the recent case involving Cecil, a rare black-maned lion. This senior male, who was fitted with a GPS collar for an Oxford University research project and who was one of the most popular lions in Zimbabwe, was recently lured with bait out of a safe haven in Hwange National Park, wounded with a bow and arrow, and illegally shot dead 40 hours later.

After the Minnesota dentist who hunted him down was identified, more than 15 petitions demanding justice for Cecil were started on Change.org. And a petition related to Cecil on the White House’s We the People website alone has garnered more than 228,000 signatures to date.

Of course, every individual instance of environmental and eco-harm carries with it different circumstances. But in our more complicated and Internet-interconnected world, you might ask yourself this question:

If a boat carrying oil-drilling equipment en route to an environmentally sensitive area passed by your home, would you take physical action to try to intercept it? Or are such environmental actions obsolete?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Jeffrey West August 18, 2015 at 9:00 am - Reply

    Most of the people in Zimbabwe could care less about the lion. The protest about arctic drilling generated a lot of contributions to Green peace.

  2. M McAdam August 9, 2015 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Unethical trophy hunting is abominable and hunters who do not manage their ecosystems for the betterment of wildlife are a blight on the industry.

    But as someone who has worked in the tourism industry in very remote and inaccessible regions, the “stop all hunting and all poaching” comment denies the complexity and nuance of poor people living side by side with wildlife. In many instances the buffer zones between peoples’ villages and a national park are the hunting areas, and it’s the hunters that do the heavy lifting in terms of protecting the wildlife from poachers and the encroachment of cattle (and, in turn to some extent protect villagers’ cattle from being eaten by lions and leopards). Cattle have a dollar value, and therefore have a measure of protection from their owners. Pragmatically, wildlife, unless it brings in money, has no value. And remote inaccessible areas are rarely visited by photographic tourists. We don’t live in a perfect world where animals are neatly segregated into fenced-off but easily accessible national parks, and we’d be a poorer world if that were the case.

  3. Mark Kraych August 4, 2015 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Online has greater outreach.

  4. John Daly August 4, 2015 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    We need to use this as the catalyst to stop all trophy killing AND to stop all Poaching of all our majestic kin.

  5. Willemijn Heideman August 4, 2015 at 11:08 am - Reply

    To answer the question at the end of your article: of course protesting against environmental actions is not obsolete. It’s only not nearly enough. If you protest against Shell but remain filling your car with fuel and not decrease your yearly milage, then you are wasting your own time by protesting.

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