Greenpeace Activists Released

I’m a bit late to this, having been preoccupied with other things, but the Greenpeace activists being held in Russia were freed between Christmas and New Year.

This went down roughly as I’d expected – some rough treatment dealt out by the authorities followed by intervention from Putin resulting in their release – but not completely.  I expected the charges to be processed further and with more publicity before Putin’s intervention, and that Putin – and the Russian government – would have made more of it, particularly their own benevolence.  But coming as it did as part of a general amnesty that involved people of far greater importance (and served jail time) than a bunch of foreign middle-class do-gooders, the release of the Arctic 30, as they are known in the media, was somewhat overshadowed.

I would dearly like to know what was said to them, and to the Greenpeace leadership, before their release.  Maybe a word of warning?  Or maybe nothing at all?  Whatever was said, the activists themselves are talking tough about how they would do it all again, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: let’s see how many of them actually do so.  The fact that one protestor complained his vegetatian dietary requirements were not catered for in a Russian prison suggests they might not be too keen on a return, regardless of what they’re saying now.

I caught an interview with one of the Australian protestors on the news down here, and he was very evasive when he was asked if he’d go back for another go.  Obviously he needs to toe the managerial line by acting tough, but probably knows deep down that they may have had a lucky escape.  He also seemed clueless, stating the protest was because “we have an oil company drilling in the arctic with the full support of a government.”  Firstly, the expectation that a government should oppose a company going about its lawful business on its territory was not justified, and the interviewer didn’t bother pressing the point.  Secondly, surely this twit has realised by now that Gazprom is a state-owned company and for their not to have governmental support would be somewhat unusual.

I doubt Greenpeace will attempt the same stunt again, assuming they get their ship back (the Russians still have it), and assuming it’s not been meddled with when they do.  If they do stage a repeat, I am sure the team will consist of a fresh bunch of naive idealists who have been kept well away from those who went through the mill the first time.  I am pretty certain that, despite their tough-talking now, none of the original lot will be back for more.  They will have seen enough to know how unpredictable the Russians can be, and how impotent their protests back home were in the face of the charges.  I think the protests will continue with increasing frequency and volume, but they’ll not take place on Russian territory.

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Macondo Compensation Funds Defrauded

Of course, nobody could have seen this coming:

BP has sued a plaintiff’s lawyer active in the compensation process for the 2010 Macondo disaster, alleging that a $2.3 billion agreement aimed at helping seafood hands affected by the oil spill contained thousands of phony claims.

The UK supermajor has accused attorney Mikal Watts of inflating estimates of damages and inventing up to half of his 40,000 clients using fake social security numbers. BP made the claims in a civil lawsuit filed on Tuesday in district court.

Watts, who is also a major political donor to Democratic candidates, stepped down from the plaintiff’s steering committee and federal agents raided his San Antonio office earlier this year as part of a federal investigation, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Watts has filed 648 claims for individual crew members, of which 40% listed Social Security numbers belonging to another living person, while 5% belonged to a dead person. About 13% were “dummy” numbers or incomplete.

Of the claims, only eight were deemed eligible and 17 still pending, according to BP.

I seem to remember remarking at the time of the spill that the Macondo compensation funds would be beset with fraud and unlikely to end up in the hands of those who need it.

And this amused, especially the last line:

BP has long claimed it is losing its shirt over some erroneous Deepwater Horizon spill claims, but now the UK supermajor says the lawyer handling pay-outs has been caught with his pants down.

A $173,000 claim for an “adult escort service” was not only submitted, but actually approved for payment by court-appointed lawyer Patrick Juneau, it was reported recently.

The embattled oil giant said the claim was made alongside unsigned and undated documents.

Juneau hit back, however, saying: “This claim satisfied those requirements agreed upon by BP and class counsel and was paid pursuant to the settlement agreement.”

One can only wonder what other requirements were satisfied once such a large wad of cash was handed over.

Did anyone honestly think this wouldn’t happen?

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Told ya!

What was I saying a couple of months back about the Greenpeace activists being held in Russia?

I doubt the Russians will inflict serious jail time on any of those being held.  My prediction is they will be subject to enough of the Russian penal system, including a few days or weeks inside a Russian prison, to deter any further such protests before being released.  Putin has already put himself in the role of benign arbiter, ready to step in if necessary to ensure no unnecessarily harsh treatment is dealt out (and making everybody aware – in case there still exist people who don’t already know – that he personally can decide your fate should you be foolish enough to try a similar stunt in future).

Uh-huh:

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has submitted proposals to the country’s parliament for a special amnesty that reports have said would include a pardon for the so-called ‘Arctic 30’ protesters.

The Kremlin announced the draft regulations on its website, specifying categories of crime and offender that would fall under the proposed amnesty.

The bill has been submitted to mark Thursday’s 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution.

Things certainly seem to be heading in that direction.  Although:

Greenpeace spokesman Ben Ayliffe said its members “are not getting their hopes up yet”, commenting in a statement: “Until the Duma adopts an amnesty that includes the Greenpeace activists and freelance journalists, everything is speculation.”

Indeed.  Only once you’ve had the quiet word in your ear that this amnesty is a one-off and should any Greenpeace activists try a similar stunt in future the outcome will be quite different, and you have nodded your head vigorously to show you have understood this point, should you get your hopes up.  But that word will come, I am sure of it.  Let’s see what effect it has on recruitment for volunteers for future missions.  I’m sure those who will soon be released won’t have much appetite for another, much longer, stint in a Russian prison.

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More on the Greenpeace Saga

So far, things seem to be playing out more or less as I expected:

Russia has dropped charges of piracy against 30 detained Greenpeace activists connected to a protest against Arctic drilling and replaced it with a lesser charge of hooliganism, the environmental group confirmed.

The charges of hooliganism carry with them a possible sentence of seven years in prison. The piracy charges came with a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.

There could be any number of reasons behind this, ranging from a genuine belief that piracy did not take place but hooliganism did, to the Russians wanting to keep Greenpeace as confused and off-balance as possible just for fun.  Who knows?

One possible explanation is that it removes a key element of hope from those enjoying the warm hospitality of a Murmansk prison: the fact that Putin said that Greenpeace’s actions did not constitute piracy.  I’m sure those imprisoned would have been clinging to this statement to some degree, and now that’s been removed from the picture entirely.  Putin said nothing about hooliganism.

As I said before, I think the Russians want to show the detainees enough of their criminal justice system to deter anyone else from trying a similar stunt in future.  In Russia, the process is the punishment (and in case anyone thinks I’m getting on my high-horse here, the UK is rapidly heading in a similar direction).

That said, I think Greenpeace need to tread very carefully at this point.  They need to recognise that Russia is probably posturing here, and has no intention of imprisoning these people for too long.  They also need to interpret the Russians dropping the piracy charges as the first step in a compromise, and I’m not sure they do.

It is fine to argue with Russian authorities, they don’t mind it too much – provided you begin by acknowledging their authority and position, and you don’t try to play hardball.  You’ve got to be ready to concede something, even if you’re 100% in the right.  When the local tax authorities find “anomalies” in your accounts and impose a nominal fine, you don’t self-righteously challenge them.  You apologise, pay up, and let them move on.  That’s how it works in Russia, in a multitude of situations.  So if I was Greenpeace, I’d be negotiating with the Russians on how we can both come away from this with both sides being able to credibly say that they made their point.  As this article notes:

The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has … offered a possible olive branch to the so-called “Arctic 30” who have all been charged with piracy over an Arctic drilling protest, as it said Russia is “open to settling the situation”.

However, I’m not sure Greenpeace has got the message:

But Greenpeace is still determined to contest the current charges, which the group called just as much a “fantasy… that bear(s) no relation to reality” as the previous piracy allegations.

“The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates,” Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia said in a statement. “This is still a wildly disproportionate charge… It represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.”

In other words, ignore the concession on the part of the Russians – if indeed it was a concession – and continue to stamp your foot and shout loudly.  This ain’t gonna work.  For a start, the Greenpeace protesters are in jail, whereas the Russian authorities will go home each night.  If this turns into a waiting game, Greenpeace will come off far worse.

In my experience, Russians can be a petulant lot: willing to work with you to a point, but if you put a gun to their head or offend them in some way, they can be as stubborn as hell and refuse to budge an inch on pure principle.  That is why I don’t think it’s a good idea that the Dutch government has decided to wade in on behalf of Greenpeace.  What was a dispute between regional authorities and Greenpeace has now been turned into a direct challenge of Russian national authority by a foreign power.  If there is one way to get Russians to adopt a hardline stance and start making examples of people, this is it.  It may be that Russia has downgraded the charges because they have now decided that it is no longer a charade, and they now intend to fully prosecute those involved.  They’d be unlikely to convince even themselves that this was genuine piracy, never mind the rest of the world.  But hooliganism?  That’s a different story.

For a start, the average Russian is probably struggling to get his head around the idea that forced entry onto an industrial offshore facility constitutes peaceful protest.  In a country which sees genuinely peaceful Russian protesters campaigning for Russian human rights getting the shit kicked out of them by their own security apparatus, they are unlikely to be moved to tears by the sight of middle-class foreigners being roughed-up after trying to force their way on board a drilling rig.

Indeed, I’m not sure how many in the west have much sympathy for Greenpeace in this regard.  Peaceful protest to most people means standing a little way off shouting slogans and waving banners, not clambering on board oil rigs.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates that had the people climbing on board been called Mohammed and had dark skin and beards, by now they’d be wearing orange jump suits and trying to breath through a wet hessian sack.  Wealthy middle-class lefties being denied special treatment for once is likely to invoke a degree of schadenfreude in some who would otherwise support Greenpeace’s broader aims.

And this also amused:

Masked men broke into a Greenpeace office in Russia on Thursday night, stealing a structure intended for use in a protest against Arctic drilling, the environmentalist has claimed.

The development came as a court in the northern city of Murmansk rejected bail applications for two more of the so-called “Arctic 30” who stand accused of piracy following a protest against Gazprom in the Pechora Sea last month.

CCTV footage and images released by Greenpeace on Friday claim to show six people clad in balaclavas scaling a fence outside an office in Murmansk that the group is using as it tries to free the 30 activists arrested a month ago on board its flagship vessel Arctic Sunrise.

The group has claimed that a mock cage was stolen from the premises.

So a group that specialises in entering the premises of others without permission in order to achieve their own ends finds itself being burgled?  What did they think was going to happen?  That the Russians were just going to play nice?

As I said in my previous post, I think Greenpeace have blundered badly here.  For years they’ve deployed underhand tactics and relied on their opponents respecting the Queensbury rules to avoid getting their heads knocked off, and they’ve now carried this approach into Russia.

Good luck with that!

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Only in Norway

From Upstream Online:

Norway’s departed oil minister Ola Borten Moe may have been deprived of his portfolio after recent elections but apparently is still looking to milk the state cow even as the part-time farmer seeks fresh pastures.

After being given the boot, Borten Moe now finds the boot is on the other foot and is reported to have requested a Nkr300,000 ($50,700) payout – equivalent to three months’ gross salary – from the government to keep the wolves from the door while he looks for another job.

The so-called after-salary is only available to members of the administrative apparatus who are without work and he is said to be among seven former government members now seeking the extra benefit.

Now it is arguable whether he needs this allowance – he owns a heavily subsidised farm and I’m sure he could pick up a lucrative job in the private sector pretty quickly – but that’s not my point.

What I find fascinating is that only in Norway would a departing oil minister be concerned about his financial position in the absence of pending criminal embezzlement charges.  I’m sure the outgoing oil ministers from most producing nations would be more concerned with which multi-million dollar overseas property to spend the next few months in.  Even in the UK, ministers ensure they cultivate enough arse-lickers to ensure a cushy tenure in an NGO or consultancy somewhere immediately afterwards.

On the face of it, a politician’s job in Norway seems to be closer to a real job than you’d find anywhere else in the world.

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How Not to Advertise a Job

This is a good example of a crap job description:

Purpose/Role
To manage, develop and support the project activities in a safe, structured and cost efficient manner.
Accountable for the delivery of services from personnel across the projects ensuring high standards are maintained and continuously improved.

Key aims and objectives
To ensure that all project / company HSE goals are achieved and where possible exceeded.
Ensure all project personnel are aware of / implement safe working practices / procedures and are provided with a safe working environment.
Deliver a high standard engineering capability at project level, ensuring a consistent and efficient approach is implemented at all times.
Implementation of a continuous improvement philosophy across the project engineering function, delivering best practices at all times.
Maintain and deliver the project objectives within budget and where applicable implement cost saving initiatives.

Prime responsibilities and duties
Management and direction of project engineering in the safe and structured delivery of the project goals
Management and continual improvement / development of the project.
Ensure a consistant approach is adopted and implemented across all project areas.
Production of project procedures / documents. Review and maintainance of exsisting procedures / documents.
Management of budgets and costs associated with the project. Production of budget / cost reports
Data analysis and compilation of project management reports
Maintaining schedule / cost deliverables associated with the project

Firstly, take the first two key aims and objectives of the position:

  • To ensure that all project / company HSE goals are achieved and where possible exceeded.
  • Ensure all project personnel are aware of / implement safe working practices / procedures and are provided with a safe working environment.

Is this the role of a Project Engineer?  Is it fuck.  The first is the responsibility of the Project Manager in the context of all project activities, and the Operations Manager (or whoever) in the context of all other activities.  The implementation is overseen by HSE people employed either by the project or the operating organisation.  What’s happened here is the job description has been forwarded to somebody who wants to show of his alleged commitment to HSE and thinks that putting meaningless and inaccurate guff at the top of a job description will serve the purpose.  However you dress up your organisation, it is not a project engineer’s job to ensure company HSE goals are achieved and to provide a safe working environment for employees.  The industry is full of this box-ticking bullshit, and the sooner it ends the better.

Secondly, all they’ve done is taken a generic project engineer job description and left out any details as to what the job is all about.  It tells you nothing about the scope or size of the project, whether it’s brownfield or greenfield, what phase the project is in, whether the position is within an operator or service provider.  For all the information given in this advert, the job could involve designing and installing a brand new platform or repainting the lines in the company car park.  If these guys recruited for the catering trade, their advert would run something like this:

Cook Wanted!

Purpose/Role

Accountable for preparing food.

Key aims and objectives

To ensure safety standards are met.

To prepare food to meet customer expectations.

Prime responsibilities and duties

To ensure all food is prepared to a high quality.

And I’ll not even mention the spelling mistakes.

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If only I’d been in charge!

We’ve all been in these meetings.  As a serious technical problem rears its head, somebody who has been involved all along pipes up with “I told you we should have done it like this!”.  And then when a solution has been found, another person – or possibly the same one – gaily announces “See, that’s what I’ve been saying all along!”

From reading the news coverage of the Macondo trial, I’m beginning to suspect Transocean are doing much the same thing:

THE Macondo oil well blowout in April 2010 could have been capped sooner if an initial plan that considered building a three-ram capping stack was followed, according to testimony this week in the BP civil liability trial in federal court in New Orleans.

Robert Turlak, an engineer with Transocean, testified that he worked with the well capping team assembled for the job shortly after Macondo blew.

Turlak said he is an engineer that assembles and tests blowout preventer stacks.

He said he consulted with the well capping team that was embedded in BP’s makeshift crisis office in the WestLake building complex in west Houston.

According to Turlak, a two-ram, then later a three-ram capping stack was discussed as one of the options for halting the well flow from Macondo.

Also among the early options was a BOP-on-BOP, which would run the BOP from either the ­vessel Development Driller II or Discoverer Enterprise on top of the lower marine riser package over the well.

I followed the Macondo incident closely as it was going on, and the possibility of putting a second BOP on top of the first was one of the most obvious solutions.  However, there was a slight problem as shown in the graphic below:

topkill_05-16-10_1750xvar_bp

You see that bent piece of riser tube sticking out the top of the BOP?  Well, that’s what was preventing another BOP being placed on the top of the first.  This was mind-bogglingly obvious to everyone right from the outset, and indeed BP did (unsuccessfully) attempt to cut through the top of the BOP using a wire saw in order to get rid of the damaged section.  I know this because I watched the attempt live on the BP feed, along with an awful lot of other interested people.  All of this was done in a very public, transparent manner with everyone chiming in with their two-cents’ worth on various forums and websites.

BP, which led the well capping team, decided instead on a top kill, junk shot and containment dome, all of which failed.

Indeed, but I don’t recall anybody with any knowledge claiming that these were the wrong things to do.  I don’t know much about drilling, but I understood from the commentary at the time that a top kill is the first thing you’d attempt in such circumstances.  There was some controversy over the junk shot IIRC, mainly because some thought it would not work in this instance (and it didn’t).

Turlak indicated that a spool piece would need to be fabricated to connect the capping stack to the well, but he suggested that if he had overseen the job it could have been “forged and flanged in two weeks”.

Hmmm.  Okay, but where would it have gone?  That bent riser tube is still sticking up out the top of the BOP.  The claim that “if I’d been in charge, everything would have gone brilliantly” is a common one in the oil and gas industry, but you generally don’t hear it made in a forum as public as the Macondo trial.  Unless I’m missing something here, this one doesn’t sound very convincing.

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More on the Greenpeace Piracy Saga

This is developing pretty much along the lines of how I predicted:

The head of Greenpeace has issued an extraordinary plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin to sit down and talk about the plight of 30 activists charged with piracy over an Arctic drilling protest.

The offer, made in an open letter to Putin delivered to the Russian embassy in the Dutch capital of The Hague on Wednesday, came a day after Russia refused bail for three of the detainees, with Greenpeace already vowing to call for bail for the remaining 27.

Naidoo’s letter cited a comment made by Putin at a recent Arctic forum in the Russian city of Salekhard where the president allegedly said: “It would have been much better if representatives of this organisation [Greenpeace] were present in this room and would express their opinion on the issues we are discussing, expressed their complaints or demands, rendered their concerns, nobody would ignore that.”

I’ll give Naidoo some credit here: he’s quickly figured out where the power lies in Russia, and it’s not with the courts.  But I’ll make two further points, neither of which reflect too well on Greenpeace.

Firstly, they are playing straight into Putin’s hands by playing a role in a pantomime which he has directed on countless occasions previously.  An injustice is done somewhere in Russia, everyone is appalled, appeals are made to Putin, who then steps in and graciously pardons the victim – who has meanwhile seen enough to convince him not to repeat the error.  The end result is that Putin cops a nice PR coup as the voice of reason, and receives the gratitude of those who a few weeks before saw him as part of the problem.

Secondly, don’t Greenpeace normally promote the rule of law as interpreted through the courts and the judiciary over the arbitrary intervention on the part of a supreme ruler?  What effect do their current attempts to free their own people have on the overall human rights situation within Russia?  One would hope that they’ve at least thought about this.

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That was handy!

I’m mentioning this just for fun, really:

A Sikhorsky S-92 helicopter had to conduct an emergency landing on Talisman’s deserted Yme platform in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea on Friday.

The helicopter, operated by Bristow, was initially en route to BP’s Valhall platform with 12 passengers and two pilots onboard, according to Stavanger Aftenblad.

It was forced to head back towards the heliport in Sola, outside Stavanger, due to heavy fog around Valhall, but had to divert to the Yme platform when a warning lamp on the instrument panel indicated gearbox trouble.

The Yme platform has been unmanned for more than a year after the jack-up production platform, which never produced any oil or gas, was determined to be structurally unsafe.

Platform owner SBM Offshore decided early this year that the platform would be scrapped, but, luckily for the crew and passengers on the Bristow helicopter, it still remains stationed on the field.

Sadly, the story isn’t rounded off by tales of men being found in the meat locker, contorted in death with horrific masks of indescribable fear on their faces and a sole survivor who rocked back and forth screaming “They came from the seeeeeaaaaaa!!”

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Greenpeace Activists Charged with Piracy

I have a feeling that Greenpeace has blundered badly here:

Russian authorities on Thursday charged all 30 Greenpeace activists with piracy following a protest against Arctic drilling last month.

A total of 14 were on Wednesday charged with piracy with the remaining 16 similarly charged on Thursday. The charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Unsurprisingly, Greenpeace doesn’t like it:

Once the first charges were laid, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo reacted with incredulity, saying: “A charge of piracy is being laid against men and women whose only crime is to be possessed of a conscience.

“This is an outrage and represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.

Weeeell.  I’m not sure exactly where the law stands on the rather blurred line between peaceful protest and criminal trespass, but I suspect environmental activists have always gambled on western oil companies preferring to allow the protest/trespass to go on rather than suffer the bad publicity of Swampy getting his head kicked in by a security guard (captured on video and uploaded onto YouTube) or being bankrupted through the legal system.  Random people are not allowed to clamber onto offshore drilling rigs for good reasons, security and safety being two of them.  I don’t believe that permission to do so is automatically granted if the person does it under the vague banner of a protest.  I’m also not convinced that stopping somebody going about their legitimate business can always be considered peaceful protest, but I’ll not go into that now.  My guess is that their actions fall on the wrong side of the legal boundary, but they rely on the oil companies’ fear of bad publicity to shield them.

If that is the case, they’ve badly misunderstood Russia.  Branches of the Russian government are rarely concerned about bad publicity, unless they are getting a public bollocking from a senior member of their own government.  Even then their concern is for their own skins, not the reputation of the agency in question.  I thought they would run into trouble when I read this:

Greenpeace has defied Russian authorities by sailing into the Northern Sea Route in protest over the Arctic drilling plans of ExxonMobil and Rosneft.

Russian authorities generally don’t like being publicly defied by foreigners.  Previously:

Greenpeace has hit out at Russian authorities’ “unjustified” blocking of a protest against drilling in the Arctic by ExxonMobil and Rosneft.

Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration has denied the environmental group’s vessel Arctic Sunrise right of passage into the ice-riddled water way, citing safety fears.

However, Greenpeace has cried foul saying it had “all necessary requirements” to navigate the passage and that is vessel had a higher ice-class specification than many vessels currently working in the Arctic for Russian oil giant Rosneft.

“The decision was made in violation of international law and the right of free navigation.

I’m not sure how the right of free navigation applies if you must first obtain a permit from the Russian authorities.  This all seems terribly naive.  Back to the original article:

“Any claim that these activists are pirates is as absurd as it is abominable. It is utterly irrational, it is designed to intimidate and silence us, but we will not be cowed.”

That’s easy to say when you’re an executive director who can go home tonight.  But you might find yourself short of volunteers for the next trip if the first lot are languishing in an icy Russian prison.

But he’s right to say it is designed to intimidate.  I doubt the Russians will inflict serious jail time on any of those being held.  My prediction is they will be subject to enough of the Russian penal system, including a few days or weeks inside a Russian prison, to deter any further such protests before being released.  Putin has already put himself in the role of benign arbiter, ready to step in if necessary to ensure no unnecessarily harsh treatment is dealt out (and making everybody aware – in case there still exist people who don’t already know – that he personally can decide your fate should you be foolish enough to try a similar stunt in future).

But there’s a certain irony here.  Back in 2006, when the Russian government was citing dubious environmental concerns during their ultimately successful attempt to wrest control of the Sakhalin II development from Shell – concerns which magically vanished the moment the keys were handed over – Greenpeace was cheering them on:

In a show of official outrage over the environment, which is unusual for the Russian government, Oleg Mitvol, the deputy director of Russia’s environmental agency, Rosprirodnadzor, recently led journalists, diplomats and conservationists on a tour of the Shell project.

He accused Shell’s operating company, Sakhalin Energy, of allowing erosion into salmon streams. He also accused the company of illegally dumping dredge material into a bay and of cutting trees in a park. On the tour, he pointed angrily at a muddy hillside on Shell’s pipeline route, led journalists to upturned trees, and said he suspected that pollution was behind the death of two fish he found belly up in a stream. At one point, as Mitvol denounced Shell dumping in Aniva Bay while standing on a pier, one of his aides casually flicked a cigarette butt into the Pacific Ocean.

Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Sakhalin Environment Watch – Lisitsyn’s group – sent representatives on the tour and supported the allegations, echoing complaints they have raised for years with little response from the government.

So Greenpeace, having been quite happy to support the arbitrary wielding of state power in Russia when it was directed against Shell, are now finding themselves on the receiving end of much the same thing.

I wonder how many of the 30 activists contemplating a spell in a Russian prison on piracy charges appreciate the irony?

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