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Arctic oil spill plan condemned

Environmental campaigners today accused a UK oil company of "breathtaking irresponsibility" over its plans for clearing up a possible spill in the Arctic.

Greenpeace raised concerns that the oil spill response plan drawn up by Cairn Energy was inadequate for the treacherous conditions in the region.

It includes measures such as cutting out blocks of oiled ice which could be thawed in a heated warehouse to separate out the oil, and deploying portable lights to help with a clean-up during winter darkness.

The green group, which opposes drilling in the Arctic, asked marine biologist and oil spill expert Professor Richard Steiner to analyse the response plan from Cairn, which has been drilling for oil off Greenland.

Prof Steiner suggested that Cairn had understated the potential size and impacts of a blow-out and leak which could occur from a well in the area, and had "dramatically overestimated" the effectiveness of any response plan.

The plan, published after pressure from Greenpeace for it to be made public, admits that conventional methods of clearing up an oil spill such as using booms and dispersant would be difficult in the icy waters of the Arctic.

The rocky coast of Greenland would make onshore clean-up hard, while a range of wildlife from puffins to fish and crustaceans could be hit.

And during the winter, when the sea ices over, any response would be limited to monitoring the spill, before resuming operations once a thaw was complete.

But the response plan said the window of time during which drilling was taking place allowed sufficient time for a relief well to be drilled if necessary before the sea froze over.

A spokeswoman for Cairn said the plans had been reviewed and approved by a number of third parties, including the Greenland government and an independent company Oil Spill Response Ltd.

"All are satisfied that the plan is robust and appropriately designed to deal with an incident in this area," she said.

But Greenpeace campaigner Vicky Wyatt said: "The company offers only giant assumptions and pie-in-the-sky solutions.

"Cairn Energy is showing breathtaking irresponsibility by completely failing to offer any detail as to how they would really deal with a spill in ice-covered seas, if indeed they could at all."

She said the company was playing roulette with "one of the most important and fragile environments on the planet" and should be stopped.

Greenpeace has been staging a series of protests, including invading drilling rigs operated by Cairn Energy, in a bid to prevent oil exploration in the Arctic, which it fears would be damaging to the region's environment and the climate.