Drilling protesters arrested after scaling London’s tallest tower (photos)

Environmentalists opposed to Arctic oil exploration scaled the tallest building in western Europe Thursday in a day-long climb that drew worldwide attention.

The quest on London’s 1,017-foot Shard tower unfolded before a global audience, courtesy of video streaming from cameras strapped to some of the six female climbers. Greenpeace employees gave a live play-by-play to about 10,000 viewers of the climbers’ trek up the glass-walled building that began at 4:20 a.m. local time.

About 14 hours later — midday in the United States — the climbers reached the top, where they unfurled at least one banner before meeting local police inside.

The campaign targeted Shell Oil Co., which has workers housed in three nearby office buildings, a year after the company wrapped up limited drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. But in a sign of the power and reach of social media — and a demonstration of how environmentalists are seizing on it — the effort drew eyeballs around the world.

“We’re trying to use the incredible power of the internet,” said Greenpeace’s announcer Ben Ayliffe, who noted in his British accent that “we’re getting some cracking tweets.”

The Twitter hashtag #iceclimb was trending on the social media site in London as supporters — and some critics — weighed in on the event.

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Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace USA spokesman, said the group had live streamed actions before “but this is the first time we’ve put all of these technological and social media assets together like this.”

Shell said in a statement that it respected “the right of individuals and organizations to engage in a free and frank exchange of views about our operations.”

“Recognizing the right of individuals to express their point of view, we only ask that they do so with their safety and the safety of others in mind,” Shell said.

Shell drilled the first half of two wells in U.S. Arctic waters last year, but regulators barred the firm from penetrating hydrocarbon-bearing zones because a specially built emergency containment system was not certified and at the site in time before ice started closing in. After Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig grounded on an Alaskan island on Dec. 31, 2012, and with repairs necessary for its other contracted vessel, the drillship Noble Discoverer, the company called off its plans to return to those wells this year.

Other companies are waiting in the wings. ConocoPhillips has aspirations to eventually drill at its Devil’s Paw prospect in the Chukchi Sea, about 80 miles off the coast of Alaska. But after Shell’s problems — and facing the prospect of going it alone in 2014 — the company decided to indefinitely postpone the work.

Meanwhile, Statoil is waiting until at least 2015 – and likely longer — to begin developing its own Chukchi Sea leases.

One of the Greenpeace activists, Canadian Victoria Henry said before the climb that she hoped the display would “make Shell think twice before sending their rigs into the Arctic.”

Henry and her five fellow protesters were arrested once they reached the summit of the tower. According to Greenpeace UK’s official Twitter account, they were arrested “on suspicion of aggravated trespass.”

Environmentalists say there is no risk-free way to tap oil in the Arctic, given the perils of operating in the remote, icy region. Technology and equipment for sopping up oil spills in more temperate waters won’t work as well in freezing or slushy water, they say.

Critics say Shell’s setbacks in 2012 — despite devoting years and $5 billion toward the work — illustrate the inherent challenge of operating in the region.