MOSCOW: Activists from environmental lobby group Greenpeace on Tuesday challenged a ship from Russian oil giant Rosneft in the Barents Sea, in a bid to stop oil exploration work they say is harming the Arctic ecosystem.
Rosneft, which has been increasingly targeted by campaigners over its Arctic shelf exploration drive, dismissed Greenpeace's concerns and said the seismic survey was being strictly monitored for its environmental impact.
Greenpeace said in a statement that its ice breaker ship Arctic Sunrise had confronted the Rosneft-contracted vessel Akademik Lazarev which was firing deep underwater sound cannons for seismic testing.
A Greenpeace spokesman told AFP in Moscow that the Arctic Sunrise was three nautical miles from the Akademik Lazarev and that the Greenpeace crew had launched smaller speedboats that came within 100 metres of the Russian vessel.
"The smaller boats are pacing alongside the Lazarev with protest banners and are documenting its activities," said the spokesman, Aaron Gray-Block.
Greenpeace said its campaigners contacted the Akademik Lazarev's captain by radio, demanding that the vessel cease its operations and telling him that the seismic work was preparation for potentially devastating oil projects.
"Seismic testing can damage the hearing of whales and other wildlife, and even lead to fatalities," the statement quoted Greenpeace Arctic campaigner Christy Ferguson as saying from the bridge of the Arctic Sunrise.
"But the ship's captain refused to talk about this and cut off the conversation quickly," she added.
Greenpeace said that among other animals the Barents Sea is home to narwhals, bowhead whales, walruses, and polar bears.
Greenpeace said it would continue to protest against the seismic testing -- used to draw up undersea maps ahead of drilling -- over the next days.
Exploiting Russia's vast Arctic energy reserves has become a major strategic priority for Rosneft and it has signed exploration cooperation deals with BP, ExxonMobil and Statoil.
Rosneft insisted it carefully follows environmental regulations and said it was using sophisticated modern technologies that follow international regulations.
" Rosneft executes its exploration programme in the Barents Sea in compliance with all environmental requirements of the Russian law and the license agreements," it said in a statement to AFP.
"During the seismic survey, a programme of environmental monitoring and safe operations control are being implemented."
However Greenpeace accuses Western oil majors of wanting to work in Russia to take advantage of environmental protection practices that are more relaxed than in their home countries.