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Decision to host Shell’s Arctic fleet haunts Seattle port commissioner

Shell Oil's Polar Pioneer Arctic drilling rig before it left Seattle Credit: Flickr user Chas Redmond

Early this year, the Port of Seattle commissioners agreed to a short-term lease with the shipping company Foss Maritime to moor its ships in the Terminal 5 cargo lane. Foss would let Royal Dutch Shell use part of its lane, too, as it prepared to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Environmentalists accused the five commissioners of contributing to climate change and meeting in secret in order to avoid an inevitable backlash. The decision would lead to months of protests, both on land and water.

Although Shell announced recently it would withdraw from arctic exploration, the Port of Seattle lease stands, and the Polar Pioneer exploration rig could return to Seattle. 

In an e-mail, Port Commissioner John Creighton, who supported the lease, told Crosscut, “In the end, I believe the lease might not have been worth either the distraction it created or the damage to the Port’s reputation.” We met at Uptown Coffee on 4th and Wall to follow up. 

This interview had been edited for clarity and length. 

Why did Shell get so much attention?

Because the environmental community hasn’t been getting traction at the national level – implementing carbon reduction goals or carbon tax or carbon fees or what have you – they’ve been pursuing this strategy to really stop it project by project.

It’s ironic because, at least until now I’ve had a really good relationship with the environmental community and I thought of myself as one of their go-to guys on the commission. I publicly said in my re-election campaign in 2013 I’d never approve a coal or oil terminal at the Port of Seattle. To the protestors, berthing an oil rig is equally as bad. But then you look at it, as a port, our very nature is as infrastructure for a transportation company, whether it’s planes, trains, boats or trucks. What are we supposed to do, just shut down the port?

Was approving a lease for Shell a mistake?

I’m afflicted by the lawyer’s “on the one hand or the other.” It’s arguably a mistake in the sense that it really negatively impacted the port’s reputation to the community that we serve. On the other hand, we also serve the maritime industrial community. That was my concern going into it. We desperately need to redevelop Terminal 5, but that’s going to take four years. That terminal costs $2 million a year just to carry, with security and maintenance and whatnot. So the commission did direct staff to go out and find an interim contract to help pay the bills. Apparently the staff found 40 different potential tenants or possibilities. Shell sort of rose to the top because it wouldn’t impact our ability to continue to redevelop the terminal, and it was the largest amount of rent proposed.

So Shell was significantly more money than all 39 others?

As far as I know. We didn’t do a deep dive.

In those initial talks, was there a sense that this would elicit some kind of backlash if people knew about it?

We knew it wouldn’t necessarily be popular. I couldn’t predict the extent of the backlash. But, it wasn’t only a symbol to the local environmental community, but to many national environmental communities. We had 200 or 300 protestors come to every one of our meetings throughout the spring and part of the summer. They put a lot of heat on us and it wasn’t pleasant.

On the other hand, the fact that the issue was raised in people’s consciousness not only locally but also nationally was kind of a silver lining. Because I do believe we need to work to get past a carbon-based economy and take climate change seriously. So I’m in an awkward position: even though I supported the lease, I felt my values were with the protestors.

A lot of people thought because you knew there would be backlash, the meetings were not as transparent they should have been.

The thing I supported… Well, I didn’t support ultimately and I should have known better. After nine years on the commission, I’ve seen a lot. [Commissioner Courtney Gregoire] and I talked about a public comment period, but then Foss was coming back to us saying, well “Shell’s having their board meeting.” We’d had the public comment meeting on a Tuesday and Shell was having their board meeting later that week and they were saying, “Shell needs to know.”

So there was pressure from Shell?

They were saying either fish or cut bait. And that might have been true or that might have been them trying to get us to commit. I think, looking back on it, Terminal 5 was probably one of their best choices. They could have gone to Dutch Harbor or Port Angeles, but those ports, they couldn’t really dock. So Terminal 5 was their preferred alternative, so if we had slowed the process and said, “No, we’re a public agency. We’ll give you an answer but not until we have a public comment period.” Looking back on it, that would have been the right thing.

One of the big controversies was this motion brought by Commissioner Tom Albro that nobody seconded to examine the impact of Shell. Should that have been seconded?

Well the person philosophically aligned was Commissioner Gregoire. The other three of us wanted to move forward with Shell.

And that was a result of Shell wanting to move forward?

Yeah. I think what Courtney was doing – and I’m projecting, I haven’t talked to her personally about this – is that she could second the motion and it would be shot down anyway and she’d ruin her relationship with three of her colleagues. I know the Stranger really comes down hard on her for that.

So it sounds like you have a certain amount of regret for what the decision ultimately led to with regards to the port’s reputation and the public backlash. But was there a philosophical mistake there? That maybe the port should not be hosting Shell?

Well, I really struggle with this. Again, I consider myself an environmentalist and I’m fairly liberal. I share the values of many of the protestors and environmental advocates. On the other hand, I’m a fiduciary for the Port of Seattle.

Two fundamental values of the port really collided on this issue. There’s our historical mission to foster good industrial jobs for our region. On that side of the ledger, there was $7 million a year in rent, 400 good paying jobs.

And then you have our heightened environmental stewardship ethic that comes out of the community we’re in and the constituency we serve and the values they have. I’ve been really proud of what the port’s accomplished. I don’t think we’re second to anyone with what we’re doing at the airport.

Then comes this Shell issue and the view I had was, OK, it’s legal to drill under federal law. Who are we to tell our tenants you can engage in this legal activity but not that legal activity? I was sort of mocked by some in the environmental community that that was a slippery slope argument and doesn’t hold water. Maybe or maybe not. But to the maritime industrial community, it’s another chip at their competitiveness.

Also, there’s Foss. Ironically, Foss Maritime, which is a 125-year-old local company that we should all be proud of, they’ve pioneered diesel-electric tugs. They’re pioneering compressed natural gas barges up to Alaska. If you want to showcase a maritime company that’s pushing the envelope in maritime environmental technology, I would point to them.

Foss has been in Lake Union for years, but it’s being gentrified and they feel like they’re getting pushed out and they’ve been looking for a new home for the last two years. Not very seriously, but there’s been articles about them looking in Everett or Bellingham. Well I’d love to see them kept here in Seattle. So I sent this e-mail last summer saying hey, Foss is a great local company and as we’re looking to repurpose our terminals — could we think about leasing a terminal to them as a new home?

So there was some sense that by fostering this relationship with Foss by way of Shell it would convince them to stay in Seattle?

Yeah. [Port Commissioner] Tom Albro really came at it as a small-business Republican – not to pigeonhole people, but I think that’s where his head was at. His point of view was, we shouldn’t lease to Foss and Shell because the old saying applies: The juice isn’t worth the squeeze. The amount of controversy it will create won’t be worth the revenue.

And now are you on-board with that?

Yeah. I’ve sort of come around to thinking that. On the other hand, I don’t know, I think it would have done huge damage to our relationship with the maritime industrial community.

So everything considered, if you could go back, would you vote the same way?

If I could go back, I would have really worked to push a public comment period. That at the very least. Whether I would have ultimately supported the Shell lease, I don’t know. I’m still struggling with that. In a way that’s all water under the bridge, but it keeps haunting me because I don’t think it’s going away.

One thing that kept coming up was you’re elected officials and you have constituents and they are saying no to Shell.

Is that really true? We had a vocal protest group. But when they did their phone campaign, I got maybe 25 calls and I’d say two-thirds of those area codes were out of state. And that’s not to say it’s not a UW student or someone who recently moved here. But then you go even to the Eastside and you have a different point of view.

There are two stark models of being a public official, one where you’re voting your conscience and one where you’re voting based on community values. Most people are sort of a mix. I’ve learned in my elected career, you can’t please everyone so at the end of the day you have to be comfortable with your vote and be able to sleep at night.

Washington’s the only state that elects its Port Commissioners. Should the Port be an elected office?

Where you sit depends on where you stand. If you’re a business leader, you probably want port commissioners not to be elected. Some of the more liberal stakeholders probably wish the commission had more power than it does.

What did all this mean for the relationship between the Port and the City? I know, at least in the maritime community, there was pretty harsh backlash against the mayor when he instructed the Department of Planning and Development to investigate the lease. Is there damage there?

You know I think there is. Looking at it from the outside, yeah, sure there’s damage. In both parties – the Port, maritime community and City Hall including the City Council. We do need to work together better. We need to work to repair the relationship because in my opinion the stakes are high. It’s not just me bloviating on behalf of the Port because I’m a port official. There was that article in the New York Times about the soul of Seattle. They quoted all these various leaders in various walks of life, whether housing advocates or city officials or whatever. The common theme was, hey, we don’t want to be San Francisco where Seattle becomes unaffordable for the average Joe. To me, a big factor in preventing that is to have a diverse economy where you don’t put all your eggs in one basket and including maritime jobs where you don’t need a college education to work your way up to a crane operator. The average wage in maritime is $70,000 a year.

The technology industry is growing jobs like mad and maybe that’s our future. But we shouldn’t lose sight of this important historical sector.

Has the city lost sight of that?

I’ll give the mayor a lot of credit. He convened a maritime summit in his first six months in office. He’s worked with the Port on a number of initiatives including the heavy haul corridor.

But I’m a little disappointed in the Move Seattle levy. That’s a $930 million package with only $20 million for Lander Street. The idea of putting an overpass over the 17 railroad tracks that run north-south in south Seattle. That’s not only important to freight but also for commuters as the city grows and for people walking.

Anything else?

You know, I hate this issue. And I tend to ramble because I’m still struggling with it. But I do think it was a mistake not to have a public comment period on an issue so important to the public. Whether, ultimately, I would have come out differently. I don’t know. I struggle with it.

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