David Prosser: When Cairn took on the polar bears


Outlook Having seen what happened to BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, one can understand why Cairn Energy might feel a little edgy about the protests against its drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Greenland. But if an oil company were to write a masterplan for setting itself up as a big bad bogey figure, the way Cairn is behaving in its continuing dispute with Greenpeace would surely provide the blueprint.

For anyone not following this saga, it began when Greenpeace activists forced Cairn to suspend drilling in the Arctic by occupying its rig. Cairn asked the courts to impose some pretty punitive damages on the environmentalists, who were then evicted from the drilling facility. Having lost that one, Greenpeace turned its attentions to Cairn's head office in Edinburgh this week, with activists storming the building dressed as polar bears. Now Cairn has taken the charity back to court, winning an injunction against publication of the photos that Greenpeace took of the demo.

Cairn's argument is that it does not know what commercially sensitive information the activists had access to. But its latest legal action looks totally disproportionate – Cairn may have won the day in court, but it has handed Greenpeace an invaluable public relations victory.

The dumb thing about this spat is that Greenpeace's demand is not even that Cairn should stop drilling in the Arctic – the charity just wants it to publish the oil spill response plan it has had to prepare in order to get regulatory approval to drill. Cairn claims the government of Greenland has told it not to do that, though the legalities of the situation are far from clear, and so the row rumbles on.

Why so much fuss over publication of this document? Well you will remember that when BP's oil spill response plan came to light following its spill in the Gulf it turned out not to be too clever – large chunks of it appeared to have been cut and pasted from other people's plans, even though they had been designed for incidents in very different parts of the world.

Cairn surely could find a way round Greenland's worries about privacy and security issues. But what it no doubt fears is Greenpeace and others asking awkward questions about its plans for coping with an emergency in some of the world's most pristine waters.

The problem, however, with the heavy-handed legal approach is that it leaves Cairn looking as if it has something to hide.

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