MOSCOW (Reuters) - Greenpeace accused Russia on Monday of trying to block its protest against offshore drilling in the mineral-rich but ecologically fragile Arctic after Russian coastguards boarded its vessel.
The environmental lobby group said Russian officials boarded its icebreaker after activists with banners reading "Save the Arctic" piloted motor boats toward an oil exploration vessel working for Russia's top oil producer, the state-controlled Rosneft, and global major ExxonMobil.
Greenpeace steered its vessel into the Northern Sea Route in defiance of Russia's refusal to grant it the necessary permits, accusing the authorities of trying "to block us at every turn".
Russia has made tapping the Arctic's oil and gas a priority to develop a $2.1 trillion economy that is reliant on exports of energy resources. Ecologists fear drilling in the virgin region risks destroying the Arctic's unique wildlife and causing damaging changes to the global climate.
The Northern Sea Route mostly hugs Russia's northern coastline and is a primary Arctic shipping route, with experts expecting traffic to increase significantly in the coming years as warmer temperatures melt the ice and make it more accessible.
Thawing sea ice has also attracted energy companies to drill in the Arctic Ocean, which is estimated to hold about 20 percent of the world's as-yet undiscovered oil and gas.
"Offshore drilling should be banned in the Arctic, and especially in a remote sanctuary for threatened species like polar bears and narwhals where an oil spill would be impossible to clean up," Greenpeace said in a statement.
Russia's coastguard service declined to comment. Its supervisory body, the Federal Security Service, could not immediately be reached on Monday.
Rosneft, while it declined to comment on the Greenpeace protest, said it was following the highest environmental standards on the Arctic shelf.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)