Guest Opinion: Will Seattle take a stand on, or a cut of the Arctic drilling action?

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Why would the Port of Seattle, self-proclaimed Green Gateway, agree to host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet?

Not long ago, Seattle’s business, environmental, labor, education and multicultural leaders, led by the Chamber of Commerce, crafted a “Shared Regional Vision of Sustainable Prosperity”. The Port of Seattle embraced this vision, branding itself the Green Gateway, and celebrating its “commitment to be a model of sustainable growth, to seek the greatest environmental benefit from our efforts, to see our sustainable practices as a competitive advantage…”

It’s not just green fluff. The community and the Port are working hard to deliver on these commitments, and prospering because of them.

So why are we rolling out the green carpet for an Arctic oil drilling fleet?! What the Shell?

You’d think the Emerald City would be the last to bite when Big Oil offers a cut of the deal on a dangerous, climate-destroying Arctic drilling scheme. But the Port swallowed it hook, line, and drilling rig. Port CEO Ted Fick signed a lease last week that would make Seattle the staging area for the most reckless, extreme oil drilling adventure ever.

But, but ... what about the likelihood of devastating impacts on the very Arctic ecosystems President Obama just protected? Not our problem, said Port CEO Ted Fick in his letter rebuffing the citizen groups calling for environmental review. Such matters, said Fick, “are outside the Port’s authority.”

What about the climate chaos that would be unleashed if we don’t leave Arctic oil in the ground, unburned? Or Seattle’s commitment to a science-based carbon budget and an ambitious clean energy agenda? Rest assured, said Fick, “The Port remains committed to full compliance with all applicable environmental regulations.” Climate? Apparently not “applicable” in this case. That’s a global thing; let the global people deal with it.

Is narrow legalistic compliance with “applicable environmental regulations” all we can expect from the Green Gateway "Where a Sustainable World is Headed?" Is this “shared vision” that’s so central to our culture, identity and economic strategy so easily expendable? When Big Oil throws a few bucks our way, do we just fold?

We here at Climate Solutions stand with our friends in labor to deliver on the promise of sustainable, broadly-shared prosperity. We actively support worker protections, good jobs, greater equity and a just and gradual transition to a healthy clean energy future. We work closely with Seattle businesses to build a successful clean energy economy. And we’re moving in the right direction, toward our shared vision. So now — before we commit ourselves to a fossil fuel project that so clearly contradicts our stated vision of our best future — is the time to ask ourselves: Is making Seattle a staging area for Arctic drilling the right thing to do? Is it good for working families, the community, our economy, our kids? Will we let Shell bully us into believing that this is the best we can do?

All five Port Commissioners say they are against Arctic drilling, as well they should be. A new study in Nature makes it clear that there is no decent, livable future (let alone a healthy Arctic) in a world where we use Arctic oil. But a majority of the Commission declined to step in and review the staff’s decision to ink the deal with Shell. Several commissioners were heard to suggest that the lease would have no effect on the prospects for Arctic drilling, because if Seattle doesn’t capitulate to this, some other port city will.

We are not responsible. It’s beyond our authority. There’s nothing we can do. It’s a staff decision. We all need oil, right? Someone else will do it if we don’t. Resistance is futile. Such is the fatalism that keeps us locked into this civilization-threatening-fossil-fuel-dependence-as-usual.

This is precisely Big Oil’s game. No one would consciously choose the dystopian future we’ll get if we burn all the oil, melt all the ice and then drill for more where the ice used to be. Big Oil's only hope of keeping its grip on our economy is to convince us that we have no choice. And for now, the Port Commissioners seem to have accepted that verdict. Never mind that in the world where we burn Arctic Oil, the Port — and coastal cities everywhere — will sink under rising, acidified oceans.

You can understand the Port’s reluctance to grapple with climate impacts. We can all relate to the sense that this issue is above our pay grade. But look: it’s late now, climate-wise. Instead of capitulating, what do you say we find out just how powerless we really are?

We all know this lease decision is not the most effective forum for dealing with climate disruption. In a rational world, a world free of Big Oil’s stranglehold on our politics, we’d have a strong global climate treaty and a functional U.S. Congress and carbon limits and prices and no one would be talking about drilling in the Arctic. We are fighting for those things and would welcome the help of our port commissioners.

But the commission doesn’t get to make national climate policy. Its call, right now, is whether we make a NEW commitment, in THIS community, to materially aid and abet an immense human catastrophe. The Port Commission will decide whether we become financially aligned with the unbridled greed and power that keeps drilling us into a climate crisis. And Seattle will wear that decision on its face: our waterfront.

The Port gets to say yes or no to that. So far, the CEO has said: We’re in. And a majority of the Commission (over the objection of Commissioners Tom Albro and Courtney Gregoire) has shrugged: Sucks, but what can you do?

So what can we do? For starters, we can stop dithering abstractly with this question. The only sane, responsible, practical response under the circumstances, in this community with its “shared vision of sustainable prosperity” is to say: "No. This is not us."

When do we draw the line?  Now, for heaven’s sake, before it’s too late.

If our elected Port Commissioners simply said what we know is true and right — “This is catastrophically wrong and we will have no part of it” — their decision would ring like a bell. It would reverberate in the ears of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a Seattleite who will decide on future Arctic drilling leases. It would be heard in Paris, buoying this December’s fateful climate negotiations with a sense that Americans are finally standing up to Big Oil and getting serious about climate commitments. It would give every other effort to protect the climate and the Arctic a shot in the arm, a reason to hope. And it might just put the kibosh on Arctic drilling, an extremely shaky business proposition that other oil companies have already abandoned.

No matter what else, saying no would be worth it because our kids would hear it, and we’d have a much better answer to their inevitable question: “What did you DO when you had a chance?”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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KC Golden

KC Golden is Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Solutions and Chair of