Cairn Energy PLC says it can safely explore for oil off Greenland's western coast, but the environmental group Greenpeace maintains that drilling in Arctic waters raises the risk of an oil spill or other environmental disaster.

Scottish-based Cairn Energy, which has just begun a second summer of drilling for oil and gas in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, says it is ready to deal with any danger associated with Arctic offshore drilling, such as icebergs and harsh Arctic conditions.

"We've got [an] absolute focus on safety. The Greenland government has [an] absolute focus on safety. They employ Norwegian North Sea [drilling] standards, which are some of the strictest in the world," Simon Thomson, the company's legal and commercial director, told CBC News on Wednesday.

"We had a very successful season last year, and with appropriate planning, the right kind of people, the right kind of equipment, that's what we expect to have this year as well."

Cairn Energy drilled three offshore wells near Greenland last summer and recently announced that it plans to drill up to four more wells this summer, in the hopes of finding oil reserves large enough to support commercial development.

The Greenland government has recently approved the location of seven drill sites, which will give the company some flexibility if it makes a discovery, company officials say.

'Extreme oil drilling,' says activist

But since Monday night, activists aboard two Greenpeace ships  have been tracking the Leiv Eiriksson, one of two drilling vessels Cairn Energy is using this summer, to protest the company's Arctic drilling efforts.

si-cairn-energy-corcovado

The Ocean Rig Corcovado is one of two drilling vessels Cairn Energy PLC is using to explore for oil and gas off Greenland's western coast this summer. The other vessel is the rig Leiv Eiriksson. ((Cairn Energy PLC))

The environmental organization says Cairn Energy's exploration program in Greenland is a disaster in the making, citing hazards such as the steady stream of icebergs in Davis Strait, an area that is often dubbed "Iceberg Alley."

"This is the extreme end of extreme oil drilling," said Ben Ayliffe, a Greenpeace member aboard one of the organization's two ships.

"It is crazy to think that Cairn Energy [is] just rushing in here with all these risks."

Cairn Energy crews had to move icebergs out of the drilling area every day during the company's exploration program last year.

Thomson said there are risks and dangers to drilling in Baffin Bay, but he added that those risks are being exaggerated. As well, the company has assured the Greenland government that it can drill safely, he added.

Stringent requirements

"We have to satisfy stringent requirements, and the Greenland government [itself gets] effective third-party auditing," Thomson said.

"It's a very rigorous process we have to go through to ensure that they are comfortable before they approve our drilling program."

The outcome of Cairn Energy's exploration efforts will likely be watched by several other major companies that hold oil and gas exploration licences in the Arctic, including Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Government officials in Canada will also be monitoring the situation, given that Nunavut is on the other side of Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.

Concerns about Cairn Energy's exploratory drilling are already being raised by fisheries officials in Nunavut's Baffin Island region, which is home to a turbot fishery in Davis Strait.

Officials with Niqitaq Fisheries Ltd., a member-owned subsidiary of the Baffin Fisheries Coalition, say they have not received information about Cairn Energy's plans in the area, nor have they been informed on how to prepare for a possible oil spill.

Niqitaq chairman Johnny Mike told CBC News his company seems to be "on the sidelines and not part of the decision-making process" when it comes to oil spill preparedness.

"Nonetheless, we are concerned because the fishing areas are going to be affected if anything ever happened," Mike said in Inuktitut. "We will have to know before any full-blown drilling takes place if fish will be affected."