Auckland 10/9/2012: The Shell-chartered drillship the Noble Discoverer – which actor Lucy Lawless and six other activists occupied for four days in New Plymouth in February - has begun drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, overnight New Zealand time.

Shell is leading a push by the world’s oil ‘supermajors’ to advance into the Arctic, as climate change causes the Arctic ice cap to shrink (1).

Late last month the Arctic summer melt ate further into the ice cap than at any time since satellite monitoring began in 1979. The previous record was set in 2007, in mid-September, when the minimum ice extent is usually reached; the Arctic could still shrink even more than it already has.

Thirty years ago the typical size of the Arctic ice cap at this time of year was around the same as Australia. Currently, the ice extent is only half that size. Some scientists are predicting than within a matter of years, it could disappear completely during the summer months (2).

Shell’s drilling plans have been dogged by a series of incidents, including when the Noble Discoverer dragged its anchor and almost ran aground, and delays around emissions consents, and the certification of an oil spill response barge. As a result, the company is now planning to only make a start on drilling, and only on a single well.

“Shell’s embarrassingly problematic summer should serve as a warning to investors across the world. From human errors to fierce storms, the company has ably shown that it is woefully unprepared to operate in the Arctic, one of the world’s most hostile environments,” says Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.

“Spending $4.5 billion to conduct just preparatory work on a single well is not only a poor return on investment; it poses a serious threat to the company’s global reputation,” Naidoo says.

“We all need to protect the Arctic to safeguard the way we live, given that the Arctic acts as a giant air conditioner for our planet, reflecting sunlight back into space,” says Greenpeace New Zealand’s Nathan Argent.

Since June, nearly one and a half million people have signed a Greenpeace petition calling for the High Arctic to be designated an internationally-protected region (3).

Shell now faces a race against the clock to complete its work before the 24th of this month, when its permit stipulates that it must stop operations because of the risk from ice floes.

The seven activists who helped launch Greenpeace’s campaign to save the Arctic by occupying the Noble Discoverer (and an eighth man who was arrested before the occupation began) will be sentenced in the New Plymouth District Court this Friday, September 14.

See more on the AUSXIP Lucy Lawless Save The Arctic Support Page for more news, photos, video and other multimedia

See more of Lucy's role as an Eco-Warrior and Greenpeace Ambassador